The Grapevine

Junk Food Feels Like Drugs When It Comes To Quitting, Study Suggests

Planning to cut back and eliminate junk food from your diet? Just a heads up — for the first week of your cleanse, you might face withdrawal symptoms similar to an addict trying to quit using drugs, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Michigan (UM).

The study titled "Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale" was published in the current issue of Appetite.

Withdrawal symptoms tend to occur when a person quits tobacco, drugs or alcohol after a period of steady consumption. Usually, they involve headaches, irritability, anxiety, and at times, even depression. These processes in the brain are what make a person susceptible to relapse.

The UM research team wanted to involve human participants and find out if highly processed foods could also trigger similar processes. As many as 231 adults were recruited for the new study and asked to report the after effects of quitting foods like pastries, pizza, and french fries.

By using a self-report tool created by lead author Erica Schulte and her team, they were able to measure physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Findings revealed that withdrawal symptoms, similar to the ones experienced by addicts, did occur — these included sadness, irritability, tiredness, and cravings.

These symptoms peaked during the initial two to five days after a person stopped consuming junk food before tapering off. This was not too different from the time course of drug withdrawal symptoms, the researchers noted.

The research team did not observe exactly how each participant quit junk food, which is the major limitation of the study. This meant they could not look for potential differences between those who quit cold turkey and those who gradually reduced their intake of junk food.

The team has planned for their future research to take this into account by analyzing participant behavior in real time. In terms of strengths, the study is said to be the first of its kind i.e. evaluating junk food withdrawal symptoms in human participants.

For the most, past research has tried to focus on sugar withdrawal rather than processed junk foods as a whole. Literature regarding human beings offered only anecdotal evidence, according to Schulte, a psychology doctoral candidate at UM.

In the past, one study from the University of Montreal found symptoms of anxiety and depression in mice who were made to quit a high-fat diet. In another study, Australian researchers revealed findings on how sugar impacted the brain’s reward and pleasure centers of rats similar to how a drug could.

As for implications, the new study strengthens the influence of withdrawal symptoms which may push people back to unhealthy eating habits, stated co-author Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor of psychology at UM. 

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