Junk food triggers a type of addiction that unleashes withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit

We all have our favorite foods, and it’s quite normal to crave them every now and then. However, it’s a different story when it comes to food addiction, especially junk food which fills our bodies with unhealthy fats and sugar. A study published in the journal Appetite examines the addiction-like symptoms that highly processed foods may trigger in some individuals, including withdrawal when they stop eating these foods cold turkey.

The study, conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan, involved 231 individuals aged 19 to 68 years – 51.9 percent of which are females – who were recruited online through Amazon Mechanical Turk and have reported cutting down on highly processed foods in the past year. The participants were asked to report any physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms they might have experienced after abstaining from junk food consumption. They were also asked to report their most recent attempt to quit – if they have tried multiple times.

The researchers then asked the participants to report if they showed withdrawal symptoms resembling those experienced by a person who abstained from nicotine or drug use.

The research team used the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale (ProWS), which was adapted from self-report measures of drug withdrawal.

“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,” said lead author Erica Schulte, a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan.


Paralleling the course of drug withdrawal, the symptoms assessed by ProWS were reported as most intense between the first two to five days during an attempt to abstain. The participants reported experiencing sadness, tiredness, cravings, and increased irritability – all of which eventually cooled off after those initial few days.

These results showed a convergence with how drug withdrawals generally manifest: The first week of abstaining from drug use usually produces the most noticeable withdrawal symptoms. The duration of drug withdrawal symptoms varies from drug to drug and depends on the length of addiction. Still, the parallels between food and drug withdrawal symptoms indicate that withdrawal may be a key factor for why individuals have a hard time cutting down on junk food.

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

“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.” (Related: Junk food is engineered to addict you to chemical ingredients.)

The self-reported study was retrospective in nature – the researchers didn’t measure these withdrawal effects in real time. The participants simply recalled what happened to them. Schulte said that, as the next step in her research, she would like to administer the self-reporting tool to these people on a daily basis while they are actively cutting these foods out of their diets.

Meanwhile, Dr. Carol A. Bernstein, a professor of psychiatry and neurology at NYU Langone Health, is skeptical about the idea that food withdrawal symptoms could closely resemble the feelings of drug withdrawal.

“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,” Bernstein said. Furthermore, she believes that this kind of study might “trivialize the seriousness of other addictions.”

“It is scientifically proven that demonstrated addiction to opiates and heroin and cocaine and alcohol all have dangerous, serious health consequences,” she added.

“These things hijack the brain. I don’t know if that is the same as someone missing their chocolate.”

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