Is Food the New Demon Drug?

In a paper titled “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?“, H. Ziauddeen and P.C. Fletcher posed the query, “Will the food addiction model help treat obesity?” The basic question is still being asked. It is obvious that experts in the substance addiction field don’t have it nailed yet, either. There are still plenty of people hooked on both legal and illicit substances, and still plenty of alcoholics. The authors say,

[I]f FA is to have any clinical value it must add something to the treatment of sufferers either in terms of developing/selecting the appropriate psychological therapy or the right pharmacological treatment.

That’s a fancy way of asking, what good is it? How much time and willingness can be spent on analyzing and understanding substance addiction, if it turns out to not really have much to do with how or why obesity happens? No disrespect intended to the valiant efforts of those in recovery and their allies, but… does the rather fuzzy concept of food addiction. or FA. belong in the same category?

This is why the Rat Park is worthy of attention. Previous experimentation had shown that rodents would compulsively self-administer dangerous substances at every opportunity. But, in the creation of junkie rats, the demon drugs are not totally at fault. Prof. Bruce K. Alexander and his Simon Fraser University associates made it clear that when little animals shoot up to escape their existential pain, part of the responsibility lies with the harsh conditions of confinement. Alexander’s team proved that in a more normal, less stressful environment, the critters do not so readily, as the saying goes, “turn to drugs.”

The proverbial lead balloon

Other researchers created rat parks and replicated the Alexander team’s findings. But to their surprise and disappointment, none of it made a dent in conventional thinking. They had done all the right things — repeated their experiments, and inspired others to try the same methods — but made no impression on the academic zeitgeist.

Prof. Alexander did remark that more psychologists and psychiatrists were noticing how patients tended to use addiction as a substitute for a missing aspect of life. Many people need to always be absorbed in some central matter, whether it is a love affair, the mastery of a musical instrument, dedication to a charitable cause, or an addiction. Being passionate about something is what lends meaning to life. Generally, the addict’s daily need to scramble for the next fix makes for a complex existence filled with significant moments.

And there was another thing, as Prof. Alexander pointed out at the time:

[M]ore recent research with different methods has shown other fatal deficiencies in the original Skinner box research which once appeared to show that all rats and people who use addictive drugs become addicted. The Rat Park experiments can draw a thoughtful person into asking a truly important question: If drugs are not the cause of addiction, what is?

(To be continued…)

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept? — NCBI,”, January 2013
Source: “Addiction: The View from Rat Park,”, undated
Image by S.J. Pyrotechnic/Some rights reserved.

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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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