Childhood Obesity is an Early Sign of Food Addiction

There is a new theory about the cause of the childhood obesity epidemic. Seattle-based pediatrician Robert A. Pretlow M.D.’s 10-year research was recently published in the peer-reviewed medical journal, “Eating Disorders,” under the title “Addiction to Highly-Pleasurable Food as a Cause of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: A Qualitative Internet Study.” He has also released his full findings in book format in “Overweight: What Kids Say: What’s Really Behind the Childhood Obesity Epidemic.” The study suggests that children are displaying symptoms of addiction to salty, sugary, and/or fatty foods causing over-eating behaviors initially and obesity eventually.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual requires that at least three of the seven following symptoms are demonstrated for a diagnosis of dependence, which is more commonly understood as “addiction”:

  1. Tolerance – the need for more of a substance to obtain the same effect
  2. Withdrawal – physical or psychological symptoms accompanying decreased use
  3. Increased use over time
  4. Unsuccessful attempts and/or desire to decrease intake
  5. Time spent obtaining, using, and recovering from substance
  6. Neglecting other activities for substance
  7. Continued use despite adverse consequences

Dr. Pretlow was able to demonstrate each of these symptoms through participant (ages 8-21) polls and statements left on message boards. An overwhelming 77 percent of participants reported that they eat more now than when they first become overweight (increased use over time). When asked why they believe they eat more now, 15 percent of respondents reported that food was now less satisfying (tolerance). Similar to those who experience withdrawal from cigarettes or drugs, participants noted that withdrawal symptoms decreased after two weeks. Participants joined this group in an attempt to cut back on eating and lose weight because they had been unsuccessful using other methods. Fifty-four percent of participants chose “I mindlessly eat, and I realize afterwards that I do this when I’m sad, stressed, or bored” over two other options in one poll.

Dr. Pretlow quotes The End of Overeating, “Foods today are much more hedonic than in the past … layered with sugar, salt, fat, and high-tech flavorings … hyperpalatable foods are much more the norm today.” (Kessler, 2024) to explain that modern foods are “much more comforting and much more addicting” and why obesity in children has been a growing concern. When polled, participants stated chocolate, fast food, chips, and candy were the foods that were the most problematic for them. It seems that the enjoyment received from the tastes and textures of food displaced stress, sadness, guilt, and other negative feelings, while eating provided a distraction from the stressors creating the negative emotions.

While more research is needed, treatment professionals should consider incorporating substance dependence treatment techniques when working with children who want to decrease weight and/or food consumption, especially when dealing with specific problem foods.

This research was conducted over ten years and included 29,406 participants. Participants were 94 percent female and all between the ages of eight and 21. More information about the various polls used can be found here.

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