Branches of the Question Tree

Is there such a thing as food addiction? Is it a substance addiction or a behavioral addiction, or a combination of the two? Or something else entirely? Could a situation be going on that no one has thought of yet? There must be more to this issue than meets the eye, because it has been discussed for years.

A long article published a decade back posed the question in its title: “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?” H. Ziauddeen and P. C. Fletcher “explored the theoretical and empirical foundations” of the idea, and the evidence for the addiction model that exists in the realms of neuroscience, and of behavioral and clinical data. The food addiction notion wields “remarkable, and, in our view, unjustified, influence” and “has acquired much currency with relatively little supporting evidence.”

They come down on the side of doubting whether the addiction model is necessary for understanding excessive weight; convinced that it is “unlikely to be a causal pathway in the majority of people with obesity.”

The doubters express three major objections. First, substance addiction is expected to have a clearly identifiable addictive agent, the juice that provably affects the brain. As the authors put it,

[If] we intend to examine the model and its neurobehavioural components, it would be important to categorize precisely what this critical addictive element is.

The equation also involves a presupposition that lab animals react the same as people, which is always open to some degree of doubt. Sure, there have been plenty of experiments with rodents and sugar and other substances. But when it comes to humans and food addiction, the best that its proponents can come up with, as the guilty substance, is “highly processed foods.”

It’s complicated. No one denies that certain classes of foods are deleterious to cardiovascular and metabolic health. But this does not meet the definition of an addictive substance. The issue also has another dimension. Not every heavy drug user becomes addicted. Does anyone even know the “why” of that, yet?

Point being, hyper-palatable foods are everywhere, so now we have to figure out why some people get addicted to them and others do not. According to the researchers,

Food, unlike drugs, is consumed ubiquitously and does not have a simple direct pharmacological action. Therefore, its use and misuse cannot easily be quantified, nor can one identify features of its consumption that indicate a clear transition from use to abuse/addiction…

On the third hand, a decade ago it was not quite so glaringly apparent that really, an enormous number of people become addicted to highly processed foods.

The authors, both of the University of Cambridge, do not say this in so many words, but there seems to be an undercurrent of a suggestion that some people prefer the addiction model, because addiction is an illness, not a crime, and they don’t want to feel guilty or responsible for their own inability to stop eating so much.

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?,”, 10/12/12
Image by David Abercrombie/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.

Food & Health Resources