Unable to Say No

If food is supposed to make people feel better, binge eating is a really bad investment, because 95% of binge eaters subsequently experience guilt, regret, and self-targeting anger. Picture a restaurant where 95% of the customers leave feeling worse than when they arrived. The venue would go out of business in a day.

This post follows from the previous one, continuing the discussion of Dr. Pretlow’s conference presentation titled “Food/Eating Addiction and Displacement Theory.” Numerous children have described the pattern to him:

  • Step 1 — Feel bad.
  • Step 2 — In a misguided attempt to feel better, eat helplessly, as if compelled by an exterior and irresistible force.
  • Step 3 — Feel bad, only now with more justification.

As if that were not disturbing enough, additional complications are in store. That little program turns into a loop, and a spiraling one, at that. It becomes a vicious cycle, or vicious circle, or an infinity symbol, or a Mobius strip, or a snake swallowing its own tail. A lot of powerful symbolism is piled up behind the concept that our fates are sealed, and we cannot be otherwise than what we are. But we do not have to accept obesity as inevitable. Life is change — change that can be steered and shaped by humans.

How do we know this? Because there are also immensely complicated models like fractal designs. They are not captured in redundant, ever-repeating cycles, but are free to branch out in every direction, reaching for the edge of the galaxy. Every connection is a point on an individual path.

Making a turn

So, how does a person exit from a potentially destructive path and onto a more promising one? By realizing that out-of-context behavior is a danger signal. Eating when not hungry (and already overweight) is an example of inappropriate behavior that is not ruled by reason. Another red flag is out-of-control behavior that brings negative consequences, yet cannot be voluntarily controlled.

These are signs of addiction, and we are not just talking about the chemical kind like nicotine addiction, but the more nebulous and mysterious varieties, like gambling addiction. Obesity shows strong indications of being an addiction.

But knowing that is not enough. Dr. Pretlow asks, what causes addiction, especially the non-chemical kind? This leads to an examination of canine life. Dogs do a lot of different things, in the normal course of events, but doing those things under inappropriate circumstances, when they don’t make sense, is a danger signal.

For a dog to lick its paws is perfectly normal, but a dog who is in distress or socially isolated might lick right down the the bare skin, and then some. A cat will over-groom too, exposing hairless and irritated skin to infection. A dog expert, the narrator of a video clip included in the presentation, says,

What makes them displacement behaviors is when they happen, when they are displaced out of the context where you expect to see them. Displacement behaviors occur when the dog is in conflict about something, and experiencing stress about the conflict. A dog may be frustrated because he wants something he cannot get, or when he is experiencing conflicting motivations.

Other examples from the animal kingdom are given. Turkeys who perceive an existential threat will eat, just for something to do, even if they had dinner moments before and could not possibly be in actual need of sustenance. It’s a good way to break up two turkeys who are gearing up for a fight, but not for long. After they munch some grain to obtain anxiety relief, the hostilities will resume.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Images (from left to right) by Aine, Kent Schimke, Paul Albertella/Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Profiles: Kids Struggling with Weight

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The Book

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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