The Tricky Mind

This post continues the discussion of Dr. Pretlow’s conference presentation titled “Food/Eating Addiction and Displacement Theory.” Dr. Pretlow asks, what causes addiction, especially the non-chemical kind? This involves an examination of displacement behaviors, which many animals engage in when faced with a conflict between possible courses of action.

As Childhood Obesity News readers have seen, along with “fight or flight,” scientists have definitively or tentatively identified several other responses that answer to the description of displacement behaviors. In humans, even laughter has been implicated as a behavior that can serve to avoid trouble. It often works for children, who can deflect the anger of a parent by doing something funny. Sometimes, it even works at school, to stave off bullying. Sometimes it backfires.

Tooth and claw

Animals in raw nature have few options. They can fight, flee, freeze, or do a couple of other things. One of these is feed. It’s like a last-ditch distraction, perhaps to forget about imminent death. Maybe it can fool a predator into losing interest and moving on to another victim. Or to demonstrate, “I’m so nonchalant, how could you possibly be worried about a threat from me?” If millions of years of evolution suggest to an animal that eating is a viable defense, there must be some reason to it.

And we are not only talking about animals in savage nature. Pet dogs, cats, and even horses are notorious for being fat. Who knows what kind of problem brings this up? Maybe the couch looks so comfy, the desire to sleep on it is almost overwhelming. On the other hand, the human who owns the place will be displeased. Now, in what should be a peaceful life, a terrible conflict is raging. Dr. Pretlow says,

Destructive displacement behavior can also involve overeating in animals, where the animal is using feeding as a way of displacing a situation that they can’t readily face or avoid.

What happens to humans when the threatening enemy is not an animal or even another person, but one’s very own thoughts and feelings? The feeding drive comes in handy here. Without the exertion and inconvenience of fighting or fleeing, a person can temporarily assuage painful emotions by drowning them in food.

Hey, this works!

When that “stuffing” method proves to be successful, the subconscious mind gloms onto it and files it away. The memory of “food = happiness” is ready to resurface whenever a distressing situation occurs.

“Hey, remember that time when your feelings were hurt, and that hot-fudge sundae made it all better?” This kind of trigger is bad enough, and everyday life is certainly generous about presenting us with distressing situations that the brain can trick us into believing need to be fixed by eating.

But it gets worse. According to some kind of weird reciprocal mental construct, the sight or smell, or even the thought of food, can itself become a trigger!

The person sees a picture of a hot fudge sundae, and pulls up the sense memory. “Remember when you felt real bad that time, and you ate a sundae, and all the bad feelings went away? Well… surely there is something you are unhappy about right now. Just think about it for a minute. Something is bugging you, right? Well, today is your lucky day, because there just happens to be a hot fudge sundae waiting for you on the other side of this window!”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image by Tommaso Meli/Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

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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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