Painful Emotions Complicate the Problem

Rightly or wrongly, moral baggage is carried (or not!) by most humans in their every interaction with the world. Many people spend their lives drowning in guilt and shame about something or other, and that is a problem in itself. Now, what about spiritual or moral qualms regarding one’s attachment to a behavior, like compulsive overeating, for instance — especially if it is identified as an addiction?

Regret is probably the mildest sort of moral reaction to one’s own actions. Dr. Pretlow and co-author Suzette Glasner, Ph.D., addressed this in “Reconceptualization of Eating Addiction and Obesity as Displacement Behavior and a Possible Treatment,” saying:

Activation of the (irrepressible) displacement mechanism may explain why individuals feel compelled to overeat or binge in the face of a rewarding cue yet feel substantial regret afterward. Regret felt by individuals after a binge episode could also be, at least in part, due to social pressure, diet culture, and potential effects on body weight. Regret would not occur if it were simply a matter of reward.

Many professionals in the field of disordered eating have remarked on these emotional quandaries. According to neuroscientist Dr. Billi Gordon, who was morbidly obese for most of his life,

Holiday binge and compulsive eating, like drug addiction, causes guilt, self-loathing, and psychological distress. There is consistent and considerable co-morbidity between compulsive overeating and substance abuse. Hence, the predisposition for compulsively overeating voluminous amounts of food, suggests an underlying neurobiological process similar to addiction.

In “The trauma behind the addiction,” counselor and therapist Sam Coleman discusses the many studies through which Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, have been linked to substance misuse in adults. For most addicts, their journey into darkness begins with the simple effort to self-medicate the bad memories out of existence. The secrecy they had to maintain throughout their childhood added an extra burden, and by the time they grow up enough to be able to reveal those dark secrets, it is of course far too late to do anything about the abuse. The person gets all wrapped up in layers of self-judgment and self-condemnation.

This category of experience, whether caused by simple violence, sexual abuse, or even sustained and inescapable emotional abuse, tends to breed in the victim a sense of shame and an inner conviction of unworthiness. They feel isolated from what they perceive as a normal society made up of people who are not haunted by such demons.

This is one reason why even the most basic forms of group therapy can be helpful, at least as a beginning step. It is often a revelation to learn that other people are coping with similar difficulties. Coleman says,

The word “addiction” derives from the Latin word which means “enslaved to”. Anybody that has suffered with addiction will fully understand this. You become a slave to the drug of your choice. It fills your thoughts and everything else fades into the background.

We will be talking more about the two emotions of guilt and shame, because people who know about these things have taken the trouble to carefully differentiate between the two. Briefly, shame is like being shackled, while guilt can actually be the key that unlocks the chains.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Reconceptualization of Eating Addiction and Obesity as Displacement Behavior and a Possible Treatment,”, 2020
Source: “Christmas Cookie Blue,”, 12/06/13
Source: “The trauma behind the addiction,”, 02/13/20
Image by Anthony Easton/
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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