Is Withdrawal a Thing?

There is a term, “definition monopoly,” meaning that somebody has the sole right to say what a word or expression means. Apparently, food addiction/eating addiction are areas where consensus is an elusive goal.

Some professionals believe that the term “withdrawal “should not be used in reference to food at all, because it is not a physically addicting drug, and because the problem is not the food per se, but the behavior of eating it inappropriately. It is also said that in psychological addictions, there is no such condition as withdrawal or tolerance buildup.

As we have seen, others, like Zoe Harcombe, find the concept useful. In listing the four stages of food addiction she writes,

3) We feel bad when we don’t have the food – we literally get withdrawal symptoms in the absence of our fix.

And from the other end of the spectrum, there is evidence that some populations habituated to opioids, including medical patients and Vietnam veterans, dropped their habits with very low or no consequences, once the time of acute need had passed.

The misnomer problem

Withdrawal seems to have a fairly nebulous meaning. Getting off some drugs (including prescriptions) can be a life-threatening ordeal, requiring medical supervision. Meanwhile, jokes are made about having “withdrawals” from one’s favorite peanut butter and banana sandwiches. At any rate, the topic seems worthy of discussion, because opinions differ.

To get to a diagnosis of addiction, some say, the presence or threat of an extremely painful experience must be a necessary condition. This is the trauma of physical withdrawal, as depicted in movies that are meant to scare viewers straight.

In online forums where regular people discuss their experiences, it is possible to find extreme statements, like a description equating the first few days of a diet to withdrawal from heroin. And who knows? Maybe it is like that. Maybe it is presumptuous to say anything about other people’s pain.

Letting go

As we have mentioned, the group FARE (Food Addiction Research Education) certainly acknowledges withdrawal symptoms as a very real and serious factor that prevents people from trying to end their dangerous dependency on the wrong kinds of food and too much of it, which in turn pulls them into serious problems like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. FARE says,

Withdrawal symptoms can include severe anxiety, headaches, sadness, anger, sweating, shaking, disorientation and depression. They can last anywhere from days to weeks or even months after quitting.

Despite a strong desire to stop, the complexity of physical withdrawal symptoms and the accompanying emotions can lead an individual back to using mood-altering foods, which only perpetuate the addiction cycle.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “What exactly is withdrawal?,, undated
Image by Nick Fisher/CC BY-SA 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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