You’re in withdrawal, experiencing everything from mood swings and anxiety to headaches and insomnia. Perhaps you’ve quit smoking or stopped your regular marijuana usage. Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve cut back on those greasy fries, burgers, and other highly processed food.
A study published in the September 2018 issue of Appetite reported that people who reduced their consumption of highly processed foods experienced some of the same physical and psychological symptoms as those withdrawing from cigarettes or marijuana usage. While studies in mice have shown that reducing junk food can trigger withdrawal symptoms, lead study author Erica Schulte stated that this recent experiment offers the first evidence that these withdrawal-like symptoms can occur in people when they cut down on highly processed foods.
Based on self-reporting, the participants’ withdrawal symptoms were most intense between the second and fifth days after attempting to reduce junk-food consumption. It’s interesting to note that this is the same time span typically experienced during drug withdrawal.
For the study, the researchers developed a new tool modeled after the withdrawal scales used to assess symptoms related to quitting smoking or marijuana usage. This new questionnaire was given to 231 adults who had attempted to reduce their intake of junk food over the past year. Results indicated that symptoms of withdrawal from tobacco, marijuana, and highly processed foods were similar. Schulte said that because withdrawal is a key feature of addiction, showing that withdrawal occurs when reducing junk-food consumption provides more support for the hypothesis that highly processed foods might be addictive.
Nicole Avena is an assistant professor of neuroscience who has done research on food addiction. She was not involved in the above study but believes that it fills an important missing piece in the research on food addiction. Until now, there has not been a reliable way to measure withdrawal symptoms related to food in humans. Now this useful new tool developed by the researchers provides a valid measure that can aid in understanding the addictive nature of highly processed foods. She went on to say that more and more research has suggested that the foods we eat, which are often highly processed and contain excessive amounts of sugar, could cause changes in our brains that are similar to those seen with addictions to drugs such as alcohol and tobacco.
There are some limitations to the study. For one, participants had to recall their withdrawal symptoms instead of having them measured in real time. Also, researchers did not measure the intensity of withdrawal symptoms compared to drug withdrawal symptoms. They also did not assess what methods (such as going “cold turkey” as opposed to gradually eliminating foods) the subjects used to change their eating habits.
More research is needed to further explore the valuable information gleaned from this study. In the meantime, perhaps just raising awareness of the possible addictiveness of junk food will be helpful for those who are working toward eating more healthy foods. We can now understand why it is so difficult to resist that last piece of pizza or chocolate cake. It is quite possible we are addicted.