Calories and Junk Food

The subjects of the last few posts overlap in complicated and interesting ways. The energy balance idea, for instance, seems like it should be so straightforward. It’s science, right? By feeding in the exact right number of calories, and expending the exact right amount of energy, the body can be reduced; enlarged; or maintained at the same weight. Only, it turns out not to be that simple.

There is strong evidence that all calories are not created equal. However unfair it might seem, different foodstuffs might be judged good or bad, positive or negative, healthful or harmful. The concept of food addiction just does not go away, and neither does the idea that some foods could easily be mistaken for hard drugs. Some foods are addictive to some people, which makes them dangerous.

Walks like a duck and quacks like a duck

One contributing factor to the obesity epidemic is society’s willful blindness and refusal to acknowledge that fat, sugar, and salt are, in every meaningful sense, drugs. Jed Diamond, Ph.D., says,

A common definition of the word drug is any substance that in small amounts produces significant changes in body, mind, or both.

A proponent of this viewpoint is investigative reporter Michael Moss, author of Salt Sugar Fat, which contains some truly disturbing numbers regarding the consumption of those commodities. He makes individual cases for the drug-like qualities and actions of salt, sugar, and fat. We are hooked on this stuff, supplied to us by the slickest dealer in town, UPF, the ultra-processed foods industry.

In describing Moss’s work, Diamond says of the harmful substances we eat,

They come from processed food and the giant food companies are making a killing with huge sales, while we and our children get fatter and sicker. These foods can contribute to everything from addictions to Alzheimer’s.

Fat, sugar, and salt are loaded into more and more foods because it is good for business, even if it’s bad for people. This will only change when people band together and break free of our collective addictions…

None of this is new. For a random example, a decade-old report from the United Kingdom notes that fast food is notorious for fat, sugar, and salt. The take-away establishments have been the scenes of many attempts to use calories strategically in advertising and in-store policy. The British Food Standards Agency convinced the outlets to prominently display calorie counts. Getting them to agree to it was easier than getting them to do it.

The few who complied soon lost enthusiasm. The outlook was grim. Commenting at the time, Martin Hickman wrote,

Despite growing waistlines and the annual cost of billions of pounds to the NHS in treating obesity and other diet-related illness, diners usually have to search out calorie information. Most chains only list nutritional information such as calories and fat and sugar content on their websites rather than prominently in their stores. Some, such as Starbucks and Costa Coffee, do offer an in-store leaflet — if customers request the information.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Are Fat, Sugar, and Salt the New Heroin, Meth, and Cocaine?,”, 09/22/20
Source: “Fast Food Chains Drop Watchdog’s Calorie-Count Display Scheme,”, 07/26/10
Image by franchise opportunities/CC BY-SA 2.0

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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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