Addiction and Displacement

The previous post included a quotation from the informational pages of the Food Addiction Institute, describing the organization’s view that certain foods cause a biochemical reaction similar to alcohol or drugs, and that food addicts need to identify and abstain from those foods. Dr. Pretlow notes, “It’s not been shown that so-called addictive foods cause a biochemical reaction in the brain. Otherwise, addicts would shoot up on IV glucose and saline.”

In the view of Dr. Pretlow and many others, foodstuffs do not contain enough potentially addictive chemicals to cause classical addiction, as the word is associated with such substances as alcohol, nicotine, opiates, etc. Food chemicals are insufficient, or not the right kind, or don’t hit the brain in the same way. He writes,

We acknowledge that the reward mechanism is a central component underlying addictive eating behavior, but we posit that rewards (e.g., pleasurable food sensations and celebrations) rather act as cues to trigger the displacement mechanism, leading an individual to lose control over eating, once started.

It’s not the food that is addictive, it’s the eating. As Dr. Pretlow says, “It’s not the cues (taste, texture, temperature), it’s the displacement (biting, chewing, licking, sucking, crunching, swallowing). Displacement is the brain’s goal. Nevertheless, cues (stimuli) are essential to trigger the displacement mechanism.”

Which offers hope that the displacement mechanism “may be a useful basis for treatment of eating addiction and obesity.” Eating addiction is conceptualized as “having sensory (e.g., taste, texture) and motor (e.g., crunchy, chewy) components,” and it is suggested that there may be a specific treatment for each component. At any rate, success might be more likely through this approach, than by relying on such a feeble defense as willpower.

Manage that stress

It all goes back to stress management, to “assisting the person in forming strategies to either avoid or effectively resolve these problems/stressors.” In this regard, looking at the displacement mechanism component could be very useful. One clue here is that “displacement behavior bears a striking resemblance to addictive behavior,” in that it is irrepressible or “out of control.” Another characteristic shared by addictive behavior and displacement behavior is that they are out of context, “not an appropriate response in the various sets of conditions in which it occurs.”

Along with “fight or flight,” feeding is indeed one of the responses observed in nature when an animal perceives a threat. The bottom line here is, grooming, or rolling up in a ball and playing dead will not really help an animal escape a life-endangering situation, and neither will feeding. This is equally true of humans. If a person is accosted by a mugger who jumps out of an alleyway, eating a quarter-pounder is not going to save the day. Whether it is an armed criminal or an upcoming exam, the subconscious reads all threats as existential. Nevertheless, consuming a bag of chips will not help pass the exam.

Even if no foods are addictive in the sense of causing a biochemical reaction in the brain, there is certainly at the same time some powerful force that compels people to eat too much of foods characterized by varying degrees of “wrongness.” That is what some of the most prestigious institutions and most innovative brains on the planet are trying to figure out and fix.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food Addiction Institute,”, undated
Image by Bas Wallet/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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