Cutting Down Junk Food May Trigger Withdrawal-Like Symptoms
Cutting Down Junk Food May Trigger Withdrawal-Like Symptoms.
Researchers found that people attempting to cut down on eating highly processed foods experience some of the same physical and psychological symptoms — such as mood swings, cravings, anxiety, headaches and poor sleep — as those quitting smoking cigarettes or using marijuana, according to the study, which was published online Sept. 15 in the journal Appetite.
What is Junk Food
Junk food is a term for food containing high levels of calories from sugar and fat with less protein, vitamins or minerals. The term describes that a particular food has less nutrition value and contains a lot of fat, sugar, salt and calories.
The new study offers the first evidence that these withdrawal-like symptoms can occur when people cut down on highly processed foods, said lead study author Erica Schulte, a doctoral candidate in psychology at the University of Michigan. Based on the participants’ self-reported symptoms, withdrawal symptoms were most intense between the second and fifth days after attempting to reduce junk-food consumption, which parallels the time span people live through during drug withdrawal. [16 Best Foods For Your Health]
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The idea that food may be addictive after “heavy” use by some individuals is a controversial subject, Schulte said. Although prior research studies in animals and humans have shown some biological and behavioral similarities between substance-use disorders and addictive-like consumption of highly processed foods, no studies have looked at whether reducing junk food can trigger withdrawal symptoms in people, she noted.
Addictive potential of junk food
In the study, the researchers developed a new tool modeled after the withdrawal scales that are used to assess symptoms that occur after people quit smoking or stop using marijuana. This modified questionnaire was given to more than 200 adults who had dieted during the past year by attempting to cut down on junk food.
The results showed that the symptoms people experience during withdrawal from tobacco or marijuana may also be relevant to cutting out highly processed foods from the diet, Schulte said. Withdrawal is a key feature of addiction and showing that it may also occur when reducing junk-food consumption provides more support for the hypothesis that highly processed foods may be addictive, she added.
Indeed, the new “study fills an important missing piece in [the] research on food addiction,” said Nicole Avena, an assistant professor of neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, who was not involved in the new study. Up until now, there hasn’t been a reliable way to measure withdrawal symptoms tied to food in humans, and the new tool used in the study provides a valid measure that can be useful in understanding more about the addictive nature of highly processed foods, said Avena, who’s done research on food addiction.
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 the brain that are similar to those seen with addictions to drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, she said. [How Drug Addiction Hijacks Brain Function]
Practically speaking, raising awareness that people may experience irritability or headaches when cutting down on junk food can help individuals prepare coping strategies in advance, Schulte noted.
A limitation of the study is that it asked participants to recall their withdrawal symptoms, but a next step would be to measure these effects in real time, while people were actually reducing their junk-food consumption, Schulte said.