Sometimes We Can Only Ask, What Was I Thinking?

This post continues from the previous one, where sensory addiction was mentioned. Many foods taste delicious, and people lose their ability to abstain, or even to moderate their intake. They eat a lot of delicious food, and don’t burn off the calories, and become overweight to varying degrees, including obese, and sometimes Class 3, or what used to be called morbidly obese. Case closed.

If only life were so simple. The effect of sugar on the brain is a thing, but it’s not the only thing. Clearly, the sensory impact of sweetness on the taste buds is a thing, but it’s not the only thing either. Slide 7 of “Food/Eating Addiction and Displacement Theory” brings up the concept of motor addiction.

Many parents have experienced a sight that causes the heart to sink — the vision of a loved one mesmerized by a TV screen, cradling a bag or bowl of chips, and engaging in the eerily automatic, robotic task of conveying bits of food from bowl to mouth in a repetitive and mechanical way. We say “loved one” because it could be a spouse, a grandparent, or a child. Eating mindlessly, with the efficiency of a factory conveyor belt, is the kind of habit that is so easily caught, it spreads through a family like wildfire.

It might as well be hereditary

That particular repetitive behavior is called hand-to-mouth motion, and there are many others that incorporate the same trancelike absorption. Biting, chewing, gnawing, crunching, sucking, licking, and swallowing share the capacity for ushering a person into a mental state that may be vacant, while the body performs the same motion repeatedly, like a short snippet of videotape edited into a loop.

Needless to say, such heedless movements can lead to the ingestion of many hundreds of calories at one sitting. But that is not all. These repetitive acts, that sooth and somehow release a person from anxiety for minutes at a time, are similar to actions that psychologists call Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors. Some of these are disfiguring and destructive, while others are merely annoying to bystanders. They include nail biting, skin picking, hair pulling, and an assortment of “nervous tics.”

Somewhere in this great land there is a woman who got a divorce because she could no longer stand to see her husband stroke his beard. Somewhere there is a man who left his wife because she could not stop uttering a weird laugh after every sentence. The repetitive behaviors that keep people stuffing their faces work the same way.

Despite the alleged addictive qualities of various foods something else is going on. Dr. Pretlow says,

In our studies, upwards of 85% of the participants report that when they overeat, they overeat on whatever is available, not some specific, hyperpalatable food.

Over the years, Weigh2Rock has explored many questions by asking the visitors to respond to polls. One of these asked, “Do you think overeating is like nail biting?,” and as it turns out, more than half of the kids do think so. Segue into a related question: “Do you have bothersome urges to eat that you’d like to get rid of?” Almost 85% of the kids answered in the affirmative.

We have all heard of “buyer’s remorse.” The car that looked so great in the showroom is not really the treasure it seemed, and nothing can be done about it. Sorry! A similar emotion is “overeating regret,” the self-abnegation that can follow a food binge, or even a single dessert that turned out to be a lousy decision and proved out poor judgment once again.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image by Melissa Gutierrez/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say explores the obesity problem from the often-overlooked perspective of children struggling with being overweight.

About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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