Can Eating Less Junk Food Cause Withdrawal Symptoms?

By Paul Gaita 10/03/18

A new study examined whether cutting back on junk food could produce symptoms similar to those experienced when quitting tobacco or pot.

woman eating junk food.

A body of research on the effects of highly processed foods has suggested that cutting down on regular consumption of such items have resulted in physical and psychological symptoms.

The latest research to support this theory comes from the University of Michigan, where a study has suggested that reducing the amount of highly processed foods in one's diet may produce symptoms similar to those experienced when quitting tobacco or marijuana.

The study, which utilized a modified questionnaire used to assess symptoms for other dependency-forming substances, may offer a new means of measuring and understanding the impact of processed foods on individuals.

In the study—published in the September 2018 edition of the online journal Appetite—a group of 200 adults aged 19 to 68 who'd been on diets that involved cutting down on junk food in the past year were given a questionnaire, called the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale which is modeled after a similar tool used to measure symptoms that occurred after individuals quit smoking or using marijuana.

Based on the study group's self-reported information, withdrawal symptoms, including mood swings, cravings, anxiety and headaches, were determined to be most intense between the second and fifth days after making an attempt to reduce junk food intake—which according to study lead author Erica Schulte, echoes a timeframe similar to one experienced by people who undergo drug withdrawal.

Researchers noted that the study did have several limitations, most notably a lack of information on the intensity of withdrawal symptoms or which methods participants used to change their intake, whether through gradual reduction or complete elimination from their diets.

The study also did not ask participants to record their withdrawal symptoms in real time, but instead asked them to only recall the scope of the symptoms as a whole. 

Still, the study did contribute to growing awareness of the possible dependency-forming aspect of highly processed foods, and the results may help individuals who consider reducing such items from their diets to prepare for the possibility of side effects.

According to Schulte, it may also provide some insight into the barriers that may cause people to stop making such changes, or even leave treatment to address dependency issues altogether.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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