Tapping the Source of Malaise

We have been discussing Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, “Food/Eating Addiction and Displacement Theory,” which can be accessed by clicking on the first item under “Presentations” on this page. It mentions quite a number of ideas that are worth pondering. For instance, Dr. Pretlow discusses a classic case of humans in an intolerable situation, grasping for relief.

During the Vietnam war, for military personnel on the ground, the experience was unbearable, yet they had no choice other than to bear it. The only ways out were to be killed, commit suicide, be grievously wounded on purpose, or quit. Desertion could lead to years in a military prison, and in fact desertion in wartime can incur the death penalty. There were, in short, no good choices. The displacement activity of heroin use was available, and many fell prey to it.

An addict is thought to be unable to get along without the drug of choice. Yet 90% of the supposedly addicted soldiers who returned to the United States never used heroin again. What does that mean? Dr. Pretlow says,

This pretty much conclusively shows that it’s not the substance that causes the addiction — for example the drug; or in the case of overeating, the junk food. It’s rather the life situation or the life events that cause the addiction. So, what are the implications of this displacement mechanism construct for obesity treatment?

Theoretically, if the individual can deal with the source of the aggravation and frustration, the displacement mechanism should stop on its own, without struggle and without the application of willpower, which is not in plentiful supply anyway. To halt the displacement mechanism, for instance the overeating, is is to stifle a symptom.

The underlying problem is still there. It might be a single factor, or multiple background sources in an accumulation of stresses. What we need to do, Dr. Pretlow says, is to “Help the brain stop the overflow energy production that fires the displacement mechanism.”


The presentation includes video of a young woman talking about her experiences. The worst problem was her horrible boss. Now, imagine being a teenager with a job so stressful, you spend your breaks running out to your car to eat junk food.

Imagine being that teenager’s employer, who might think anything from “She’s tracking so much dirt in from the parking lot,” to “She’s out there in her car getting high.” In other words, whatever reasons, legitimate or not, that the boss might have for acting angry or punitive — this displacement activity of overeating only makes it worse.

And when things are worse, the need for relief, via some displacement behavior, increases. We are now in a vicious cycle, or circle. So the employee feels more stress, and the boss becomes more abusive, etc., until somebody quits or gets fired.

Now, pause to imagine being a working teen. All the voices sing in tune: “You can’t quit your first job! It will go on your record forever! You’re lucky to even have a job! What if you can’t find another one? You’ll lose your car! Don’t you know how many kids want jobs and can’t find them? You should be grateful! Now you know what the real world is like, you want to go back to being a freeloader? Everybody has to learn how to get along with their boss,” and on and on.

Carly made a list of life problems, along with positive steps that could lead to resolving those difficulties — an action plan. There was never any question that the work situation was the biggest problem. But taking this analytic approach allowed her to see a path ahead, and understand that there were ways to cancel out whatever damage would be caused by quitting the job. Things worked out, and her compulsive eating problem faded away.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image source: Dropbox

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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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