Quitting These Foods Can Cause Withdrawal Symptoms

A new study has found that quitting junk food can result in symptoms similar to drug withdrawal.

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The Better-for-You Potato Chip (3:02)

A study published in the journal Appetite - is believed to be the first of its kind to examine the withdrawal symptoms and may offer support to the controversial idea that individuals might experience addictive-like responses to highly processes junk foods. Erica Schulte, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan and the lead author of the study, tells Healthline, “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.”

Schulte and her colleagues studied the withdrawal symptoms people experience from cutting junk food out of their regular diets by asking 231 adult participants to reports any physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms they might have experienced after having reduced or eliminated their intake of junk foods over the past year. The participants reported that they experienced heightened irritability, cravings, tiredness, and sadness in the first two to five days after quitting junk food. These withdrawals experienced in the initial few days correlate with the initial symptoms of drug addiction withdrawals. The findings also pointed out that the more intense the withdrawal symptom, the less likely the diet attempt was found to be a success. Schulte’s reports, “This demonstrates that withdrawal may be a relevant contributor for why individuals have such a difficult time cutting down on junk food.”

Dr. Vijaya Surampudi, assistant professor of medicine in the division of human nutrition at UCLA, explains why processed items can be so addictive. She states, “You start eating more and more to get that same feeling you had that was pleasurable. Imagine sugar, soda, and caffeine all stimulating the rewards center, constantly telling you that you want more and more of these substances.” Salt, fat, caffeine, and sugar are four addictive things that are typically found in junk food. Regarding sugar, it generates dopamine, which triggers the “rewards center” of the brain, and the signal tricks your brain into think that it needs to seek out the cause of pleasure in order to receive the same feeling. Dr. Surampudi suggests not to go cold turkey and rather to wean yourself off of sugar and other junk food. She points out that, “The first weeks will be tough because you are trying to regulate your blood sugar levels, balancing the insulin levels that we are thinking causes the addiction. I say start in the morning with foods that are high in protein to level out your blood glucose. That way you won’t be craving sugar throughout the day.” The process of “detoxing” from junk food is difficult because of cravings and the negative mind frame, so it’s important to provide yourself positive affirmation.

Skeptics of the study are hesitant to compare food addiction to that of drug addiction. Dr. Carol A. Bernstein, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at NYU Langone Health, believes that the feeling you receive from missing junk food doesn’t measure up to the experience of drug withdrawal. She states, “I don’t think it is as hard to stay away from potato chips and chocolate as it is to stay away from heroin and cocaine.” She worries that studies and headlines like this might “trivialize the seriousness of other addictions. Experts suggest that if you struggle with the temptation of unhealthy food options you should consult your physician or nutritionist to change your mindset and begin managing your dietary patterns.

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