Quitting junk food causes withdrawals like drug addiction: study

By | October 21, 2018

We all have some guilty-pleasure junk foods: French fries, pizza, sweets.

Sometimes, it can be hard to cut these unhealthy treats from our diets, and now, new research out of the University of Michigan might suggest why that’s the case. Quitting highly processed junk food can result in symptoms of withdrawal that are a lot like those experienced by people who are addicted to drugs.

The research appears in the current issue of the journal Appetite. It is believed to be the first study of its kind that examines the withdrawal symptoms people experience when they stop digging into these foods as a part of their regular diet.

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“One of the frequent criticisms was that there have not been studies in humans to investigate whether withdrawal, a key feature of addiction, can occur when persons cut down on junk food. Our group was motivated to develop this measure of assessing withdrawal-type symptoms in the context of junk foods in order to chip away at this gap in the literature,” the study’s lead author Erica Schulte, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan, told Healthline.

“We believe that the findings do provide initial support for the relevance of withdrawal when cutting down on highly processed junk foods, which lends further support to the plausibility of a ‘food addiction’ for some individuals.”

Nevertheless, she noted that, “The idea that some individuals might experience addictive-like responses to highly processed junk food remains a controversial idea.”

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Schulte and her colleagues asked 231 adult participants to report any physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms they might have experienced after having cut down on or abstained from junk foods over the past year.

If they had multiple attempts to quit, they were asked to report their most recent one. They were then asked to report if they showed any of the kinds of withdrawal symptoms that a person has when they try to cut down on nicotine and cannabis use.

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Beyond this, they were asked if their attempts to cut down on or remove the foods from their diets were successful, and how they determined what that “success” was.

These people reported that they experienced sadness, tiredness, cravings, and increased irritability in the first two to five days after quitting junk food. These symptoms eventually cooled off after those initial few days.

This corresponds with the general understanding of how drug withdrawals work. The duration of drug withdrawal symptoms really varies from drug to drug, and depends on the length of addiction. But, generally speaking, that first week after cutting out drug consumption will produce the most noticeable withdrawal symptoms.

Beyond being surprised by how closely these junk food withdrawals aligned with drug withdrawal symptoms, Schulte added that the more intense the withdrawal symptom, the less likely the diet attempt was found to be a success.

“This demonstrates that withdrawal may be a relevant contributor for why individuals have such a difficult time cutting down on junk food,” she added.

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