Let’s begin a tour through Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, “Food/Eating Addiction and Displacement Theory,” from the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference in Oman. It begins by reintroducing the interactive website Weigh2Rock, which for almost two decades has enabled Dr. Pretlow to tune in to the thoughts, challenges, fears, and aspirations of young people who deal with obesity. This is the living source of the data that informs his book, Overweight: What Kids Say.
Children express this thought in different ways, but they all boil down to the stark reality voiced by 10-year-old Rachel: “I simply can’t stop eating.” That in itself is helpful, because in reading the messages left by others, the kids learn that they are not alone. Any life situation is less frightening when a person knows that others share it. Even better is the knowledge that others have escaped it, and that is what Weigh2Rock does for the children and teens who communicate with each other there.
It also inevitably helps parents, too, who struggle with their own urgent questions about how much responsibility they bear for their children’s obesity, and who seek, sometimes desperately, answers of their own. This typical quotation from an 18-year-old is also on the lips of mothers and fathers — “I need serious help.”
The giant question mark
The bafflement can be phrased in different ways. For instance, “Why can’t I just follow the excellent advice that says to eat healthy?” Or, “I know that what I’m doing has negative consequences, so why do I keep doing it?” “Is there something wrong with my head?
Because it says here, with fMRI imaging, food makes parts of my brain light up just like an addict with a hard drug.” “Am I some kind of junkie?” The question in the back of everybody’s mind is, “What is going on with me?”
Are we talking about deep neurochemical effects, or superficial sensory effects? If sugar tasted like salt, would the average American still consume 150 pounds of it per year? If sugar did for cupcake aficionados what cocaine does for a user, the answer would be yes, bring on the salt-flavored sugar.
We would not care how gross it was at first contact. We would be willing to endure it for the sake of the effect that would soon follow. If salt-flavored sugar performed in the brain like cocaine, the taste would not be a deterrent, no more than the destruction of the nasal cartilage is a deterrent to the habitual user of cocaine or methamphetamine.
And yet, demand for salt-flavored sugar does not seem to be revolutionizing the marketplace. People want sugar-flavored sugar, which suggests that its effect on the brain, however significant, is still secondary to its initial impact, before its molecules even start the journey to the brain.
To weave its harmful magic, sugar does not need to get in that far. It begins to cast its destructive spell, way out on the periphery of the nervous system, on a body part so far from the brain it can even wave around in the air — the tongue.
When sugar hits the tongue’s taste buds, it doesn’t need to do any more convincing. The body says, “Come on in, and bring your friends.” Taste is a sense, and taste dictates the ongoing consumption of what it deems as delicious, and that is why scientists talk about a phenomenon called sensory addiction.
(To be continued…)
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