Obesity and Addiction Debate Points

There are first principles that anchor the various concepts about addiction as it relates to obesity. Often there is no exact agreement on the principle itself; only on the importance of taking the matter into consideration.

One principle is inevitability, the conviction that if something in the environment is capable of causing addiction, people will get hooked. And sure, some do. But some don’t. This is one of the variables that can knock holes in theories. A closely related concept is that some foods are just inherently junkie fodder. In other words, an addictive food will be the downfall of anyone who is exposed to it. This view is held by some and contested by others. On both sides, the evidence is out there. Some people, confronted by the most delicious treats, are unmoved.

In “Addiction: The View from Rat Park,” Bruce K. Alexander threw shade on the Skinner box research “which once appeared to show that all rats and people who use addictive drugs become addicted.” Then along comes a doubter who asks why everybody isn’t addicted. Someone else says, if we look closely enough, they probably are, to something. A 2013 paper on the validity of the food addiction concept said,

The hyperpalatable foods that are thought to be addictive are widely available and widely consumed. To consider that they may become addictive in some individuals will require the characterization of a specific feature (or several features) of these foods that acts in concert with certain individual vulnerabilities.

Dr . Vera Tarman has pointed out that while anybody can become an addict, surprisingly, not everyone does — either to a substance that many are susceptible to, or under circumstances where others buckle. These are two of the anomalies that mess up attempts to achieve consensus. She has also posed many questions, like:

How about vegetables, fruits, meats and fish? For most people, even end-stage food addicts, these foods are not addictive.

She states that humans are programmed to want food when hungry, along with a complementary instruction to be satisfied when we have extracted the stored energy from the food. But that only works in relation to “the foods our body was metabolically designed to eat and enjoy with satisfaction.” When the border is crossed into the area of weird, manipulated food, however, that is another story. We live in an environment that creates food addicts on purpose.

In the words of Billi Gordon, Ph.D.,

You can never get enough of something that’s almost satisfying.

If this subject is to be debated thoroughly, there are a lot of side roads. One of the ironies is that, according to people who devote their lives to figuring out the best way to eat, there is an available way to fill the emptiness. They will affirm that something like a bowl of brown rice and beet greens can make a person “feel fed” in a way that cannot be described, but once felt, is unmistakable. The eating part itself may not provide quite the same thrill as a bag of cheese puffs, but the body as a whole really does receive the message: “Hey! I got some nutrients! I can quit eating for a while!”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Addiction: The View from Rat Park,” BruceKAlexander.com, 2010
Source: “Is food addiction a valid and useful concept?,” NIH.gov, January 2013
Source: “Guest Post: Food Abstinence for Food Addicts: Deprivation or a New Freedom?,” DrSharma.ca, February 2015
Source: “Moderation — Strategy or Fantasy?,” PsychologyToday.com, 07/06/16
Image by emanoellers/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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