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Allergies, Addiction, Childhood Obesity, and Halloween: All Scary

October 29, 2010

OK, I'm feeling a little sick

“In the interest of fighting the childhood obesity epidemic, I’ve decided to eat all the Halloween candy I bought.”

SomeecardsJust kidding. The line is from Someecards, a company that devises — you guessed it — greeting cards in electronic format. The picture above is not the ecard, by the way. The boy in the picture didn’t buy candy, he collected it. In the Someecards illustration, the person who takes a stand against childhood obesity and disposes of the swag by the simple expedient of eating it is an adult. It’s the grownups who buy the Halloween candy. But let’s get back to that.

First, remember when we mentioned that food allergy and food addiction are very much alike, in an important and dangerous way? Extreme sensitivity to peanuts can send a child into anaphylactic shock. Extreme craving for chips can send a child into a three-day eating binge. Either way, it’s the same bottom line. The child needs to cut that food out of her or his life. (See Dr. Pretlow’s presentation, “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic?” Scroll to Slide 97 to learn about the process of withdrawing from problem foods one by one.) Coincidentally, nuts are a popular choice among stress eaters who find relief in chewing crunchy things. Nuts can become somebody’s problem food, i.e. addictive.

The allergy/addiction connection has captured the attention of some researchers for years. One of them is Paolo Lionetti, who was interviewed by Maggie Fox, Health and Science Editor for Reuters. Lionetti and his University of Florence (Italy) colleagues compared the intestinal bacteria of children in Europe and children in the West African country of Burkina Faso.

The researchers concluded that kids in wealthy, industrialized countries suffer a disadvantage, because the particular germs in their digestive tracts can make them vulnerable to allergies and even childhood obesity. These germs are also called microbiota. Lionetti says,

We can hypothesize that the reduction in richness we observe in EU compared with Burkina Faso children, could indicate how the consumption of sugar, animal fat, and calorie-dense foods in industrialized countries is rapidly limiting the adaptive potential of the microbiota.

The Burkina Faso children, by contrast, eat mainly whole grains and vegetables, but little meat. Unlike Europeans, the African kids are well equipped with gut bacteria that can break down fiber. Apparently, Western medicine has made a devil’s bargain, trading a greater ability to control infectious diseases for a handicap in the form of debilitated intestinal flora that cannot handle processed grains, sugar, or fat, and that problem somehow leads to, causes, or facilitates obesity. Lionetti and his team recommend further research, and expect to find that one of the keys to the childhood obesity mystery may be this reduction in microbial richness that we of the more developed nations have inflicted on ourselves.

Dr. Pretlow points out a message sent to one of the discussion boards at Weigh2Rock by a 21-year-old who gets “bored between meals,” and says,

[…] I won’t be hungry, but I will be, like, ‘Hmmm, I want chocolate,’ and I will eat it and then feel bad but when I’m eating it, it’s like I don’t care. It’s weird.

Dr. Pretlow comments that the post “typifies addiction to food (substances), e.g. chocolate,” and adds,

A part of her brain has taken over in order to shield her from emotional distress, in this case boredom. Boredom actually is, many times, mislabeled less socially accepted emotions, such as depression.

A frightening anecdotal report of the allergy-addiction connection arrived via private communication, and the writer agreed to its being shared (the link in the quote is ours):

My youngest son goes ape over chocolate. So much so, that we have all but cut it out of his diet. For some reason, whenever he has a modest amount of chocolate he gets irritated, agitated and starts throwing tantrums. He screams more and gets all out of sorts. It is crazy! I tried to discuss this with my pediatrician, thinking that maybe he is allergic. She said ‘Impossible.’ I did some research and it IS possible to be allergic! I simply cut chocolate out of his diet. Guess what? Perfect angel. Sometimes sugar gets him going, but an amount of chocolate over the size of a teaspoon and his emotions are out of whack and he goes crazy.

Allergies and addictions both get worse over time, and it looks like the same person can be both allergic to a substance and addicted to it. It starts out with an attraction to the food because of the obvious flavor factor. Then the allergy builds up, but by the time it becomes obvious and symptomatic, the craving for the substance is so ingrained it might as well be called addiction. It’s a cruel joke that nature has played, designing us to be so fond of the substances that have the worst effect on us.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Study: Could gut germs underlie Western allergies?,”, 08/02/10
Source: “What’s Really Causing the Childhood Obesity Epidemic? What Kids Say,” Weigh2Rock
Image by ninahale (Nina Hale), used under its Creative Commons license.
Clip art, via Someecards, used under Fair Use: Reporting.

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