Do People Replace Food with Sex?

The diet made him do it. This was the argument that Jared Fogel’s attorney made in court to defend his having sex with minors. Forensic psychiatrist John Bradford testified that Fogel’s rapid weight loss and restricted diet led to hyperactive sexual drives that resulted in his “mild pedophilia.” First of all, I never knew that one could have “mild pedophilia”–isn’t that like being a little bit pregnant? But I digress.

The question at hand is: did the diet make him do it?

While there is a part of me that relishes the idea that dieting could be equated to mental insanity in a court of law–and I do believe that dieting makes people pretty nuts–there is research that actually provides clues to answer this question. In fact, it is research conducted by me and my colleagues at The New York Obesity Nutrition Research Center in affiliation with Columbia University. I presented the results at the 2014 annual conference of the American Society of Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery/ Obesity Week. Our study followed people who underwent bariatric weight loss surgery (a surgery that drastically reduces the amount of food that a person can consume) to see if they started engaging in substitute compulsive behaviors to replace compulsive overeating. The results? People did not engage in compulsive sexual behavior following weight loss surgery. In fact, they did not really engage in that much sex at all, either before or after surgery. Kind of puts the kibosh on Jared’s “the diet made me do it” defense.

This isn’t to say that dieting isn’t extraordinarily destructive. It is. Dieting leads us to feel terrible about ourselves. We become preoccupied with food and our weight. It makes us feel like crap, both physically and emotionally. And it often triggers binge eating and other disordered eating behaviors. But is it a defense for criminal acts? I don’t think so.

Check out Dr. Conason’s Eating Mindfully blog on Psychology Today