Addiction in the Realm of Food

Back in the 1990s, Dr. Phil Werdell created ACORN Food Dependency Recovery Services and has published several books about the subject, including Bariatric Surgery and Food Addiction: Pre-Operative Considerations. Like many other professionals, this writer was very concerned with the question of whether food dependency is a bona fide addiction. Science has been looking at many different angles, including brain activity, genetics, similarity to opioid addiction, cross addiction, and malfunctioning or overactive hormones.

Much information about Werdell’s ideas, incidentally, came from a book excerpt whose web page has expired. Like any spirited thinker, he expressed the same basic ideas many times, not always in exactly the same words.

A holy grail

In the past, there was thought to be such a thing as the obesity gene, and it was fervently sought. In the early Nineties, a good candidate was identified, but the lead researcher was careful to clarify. The genetic marker he was talking about had to do with an underlying internal chemical dependency on food, but not necessarily a state of observable obesity.

At any rate, no such luck. Of course, it is not just a single gene. Some researchers had always suspected that, like so many other things, the genetic tendency to be obese is multifactorial, and they were not wrong. There are so many possibilities in genetic combination. At this stage, in its predictability, it is not much more useful than pure chaos. Indeed, many genes take part in how digestion works. Some even control sphincter tone and fecal continence. There are a lot of “known unknowns.”

Cross addiction

Several universities and other institutions have produced studies showing that too much sugar can cause “endogenous opioid dependency,” where the brain produces its own dope. This would come under the heading of food being addictive, at least when combined with some cooperation from the brain.

Recovering alcoholics have traditionally tended to develop eating problems, especially around sweets. Beer is replaced by doughnuts. These substitution tactics accomplish nothing but self-deception. It isn’t simply that people get fat. There is pretty good evidence that sugar can actively prevent recovery from alcoholism. In recent years, there has been a lot of cross-pollination between programs that alleviate alcoholism, and hardcore nutritionists.

Typical of the warnings about all this was a 2017 piece called “Bariatric Surgery Stands No Chance against an Untreated Food Addiction.” Among other things, the uncredited writer said,

Like other addictions, food addiction can be triggered by depression, an individual’s desire to fill some type of emotional void, or the need to be able to have control over some part of his or her life. These patients understand that they can no longer turn to food after gastric bypass or other weight loss surgery, but they may be unaware that they have an addictive personality and unconsciously develop another addiction.

Werdell and others have pointed out that alcoholics, drug addicts, and problem eaters all share certain traits. In service of their addictions, they will obsess, binge, isolate, and lie. All the various 12-step groups have membership overlap. The precepts and the successful ways of coping are pretty much the same, which makes the skills transferable to a large extent. Still, when a person gets serious about recovery, sometimes one group is not enough.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Science of Food Addiction,” print only
Source: “Bariatric Surgery Stands No Chance against an Untreated Food Addiction,”, 09/06/17
Image by Everjean/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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