Why is quitting junk food so hard? Because it’s like quitting drugs

If you plan to try and quit eating junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—that addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs, according to new research.

The new study is believed to be the first of its kind to evaluate withdrawal symptoms that people go through when they stop eating highly processed foods, such as pastries, French fries, and pizza.

Previous studies have focused on sugar withdrawal among animals and the literature regarding humans offered only anecdotal evidence, says Erica Schulte, the study’s lead author and a psychology doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan.

Researchers agree that the addictive qualities of tobacco, drugs, or alcohol affect the brain similarly and cutting back can lead to negative side effects that can make it difficult to reduce intake.

Anxiety, headaches, irritability, and depression are some of the outcomes.

Understanding whether withdrawal may also occur with highly processed foods was an essential next step in evaluating whether these foods might be capable of triggering similar addictive processes, researchers say.

Schulte and colleagues created the first self-report tool to measure the physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms among people, then asked 231 adults to report what happened when they reduced the amount of highly processed foods they ate in the past year.

The participants reported that sadness, irritability, tiredness, and cravings peaked during the initial two to five days after they quit eating junk food, then the negative side effects tapered off, which parallels the time course of drug withdrawal symptoms, according to the study.

The researchers did not focus on the method used to change eating behavior, such as participants quitting “cold turkey” or gradually phasing out junk food.

Schulte says future studies will analyze the behavior in real time rather than the retrospective approach in the current findings.

The study suggests that withdrawal symptoms may make dietary changes challenging, which may contribute to people reverting back to bad eating habits, says coauthor Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor of psychology.

The findings appear in the current issue of Appetite.

Source: University of Michigan.