Roots of Food Addiction Objections

For decades, the debate has persisted over the validity of “food addiction” as a thing that medical science should deal with or even acknowledge. It seems acceptable to refer to the overall concept as FA, without necessarily agreeing on all the details or indeed, whether it exists at all.

Is FA a legit clinical entity? Many different arguments have been offered. A decade-old paper laid a lot of groundwork for understanding why the controversy is ongoing. Titled, “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?“, it was written by University of Cambridge scholars H. Ziauddeen and P. C. Fletcher. They said,

While the idea has intuitive clinical and scientific appeal, and may provide an explanatory narrative for individuals struggling with weight and diet control, it has acquired much currency with relatively little supporting evidence.

Others interested in this matter may admit that some evidence exists, but it is the wrong kind, or there is not enough of it, however much there is. As with any multifactorial problem, there are dimensions. People might be talking about neuroscientific evidence, behavioral evidence, or clinical evidence.

The authors sorted the matter into two broad categories, starting with fundamental theoretical difficulties. The first of those originates at the neurobiological level. They believed that any discussion of addiction “necessitates the presence of a clearly identifiable addictive agent.” (Of course, that was 10 years ago, and more research has been done in this area.)

Does food contain substances that act like cocaine, heroin, or meth? Lab rodents fed on fat and sugar would behave like little junkies, complete with binge-eating, compulsive food-seeking, neural changes, and withdrawal symptoms. It is possible, the researchers found…

[…] to produce an addiction-like syndrome, one that leads to obesity, with certain nutrient combinations and particular access regimes… However, the findings, while they tell us that hyperpalatable foods, administered in particular, often highly constrained regimens, produce an addiction-like syndrome, they do not afford easy translation to humans who are not subject to such constraints.

And there it is. Does it really make sense to extrapolate from the behavior of caged rodents, all the way out to the behavior of human beings in their glorious variety, and their vastly different environments? How many conclusions can be drawn, exactly? Another quotation from the work:

[A]s we know from substance addictions, drugs vary in their potency and addictive potential (even within a class of substance)… When we speak of FA, are we talking about many addictive substances or one common substance (fat? sugar?) that drives the addiction across many foods?

The authors also note that distinctions need to be made between the natural substances that are inherent to foods, some of which might prove to be addictive in some cases, and products of chemical reactions that wind up in highly processed foods, which also might very well be addictive. We are not just talking about nutrients, but other stuff that gets dumped in there. What if it turns out that millions of people are addicted to Red Dye #2?

(Next, a look at how animal experiments can be misconstrued, leading to conclusions that might not be all-encompassing or definitive.)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?,”, 10/12/12
Image by kphotographer/CC BY-ND 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.
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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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