Quitting junk food produces similar withdrawal-type symptoms as drug addiction. We common folk have known this for forty years, but now science has confirmed it. I visited my WayBack Machine to find the lyrics for this 1976 Golden Oldie: “Junk Food Junkie” by Larry Groce. The chorus goes like this:
Yeah, in the daytime I’m Mr. Natural
Just as healthy as I can be
But at night I’m a junk food junkie
Good Lord have pity on me!
In the Kitchen, we know food eaten any time of the day or night affects our bodies for good or ill. When I was an art student, I had a roommate who thought fasting during the day and eating in the dark would help her maintain her weight. Half a century ago, we called this theory “unseen calories have zero calories.” She never figured out why she gained weight.
A University of Michigan study confirms what has long been suspected: highly processed foods like chocolate, pizza and French fries are among the most addictive. Moreover, highly processed foods are linked to addictive eating.
This is one of studies to examine specifically which foods may be implicated in “food addiction,” which has become of growing interest to scientists and consumers in light of the obesity epidemic. On my recent visit to Israel, we were eating wonderful Mediterranean foods at every meal. Some of my tour companions were “lusting for the flesh pots of Egypt,” or wishing they had a sausage and egg biscuit from McDonald’s on the first morning out. I chose not to eat with them again. No one needs to travel over 5,000 miles to eat the same food as home. Then again, these folks may have been experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they were accustomed to their daily fix.
Previous studies in animals conclude that highly processed foods, or foods with added fat or refined carbohydrates (like white flour and sugar), may be capable of triggering addictive-like eating behavior. Clinical studies in humans have observed that some individuals meet the criteria for substance dependence when the substance is food.
Despite highly processed foods generally known to be highly tasty and preferred, it is unknown whether these types of foods can elicit addiction-like responses in humans, nor is it known which specific foods produce these responses, said Ashley Gearhardt, U-M assistant professor of psychology.
Unprocessed foods, with no added fat or refined carbohydrates like brown rice and salmon, were not associated with addictive-like eating behavior.
Individuals with symptoms of food addiction or with higher body mass indexes reported greater problems with highly processed foods, suggesting some may be particularly sensitive to the possible “rewarding” properties of these foods, said Erica Schulte, a U-M psychology doctoral student and the study’s lead author.
“If properties of some foods are associated with addictive eating for some people, this may impact nutrition guidelines, as well as public policy initiatives such as marketing these foods to children,” Schulte said.
When my daughter was young, I limited our visits to fast food outlets to Friday nights after my work week was over. Mr. Microwave and. Mr. Crockpot provided meals during the week, and we grilled on the weekends. I grew up in a household with food and family at the table as a central part of our life. Food doesn’t have to be fancy, and leftovers were offered at least once a week as “druthers” night. Companionship was more important than the meal itself.
Nicole Avena, assistant professor of pharmacology and systems therapeutics at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, and a co-author on the study, explained the significance of the findings. “This is a first step towards identifying specific foods, and properties of foods, which can trigger this addictive response,” she said. “This could help change the way we approach obesity treatment. It may not be a simple matter of ‘cutting back’ on certain foods, but rather, adopting methods used to curtail smoking, drinking and drug use.”
Future research should examine whether addictive foods are capable of triggering changes in brain circuitry and behavior like drugs of abuse, the researchers said.
If you plan to try and quit junk food, expect to suffer similar withdrawal-type symptoms—at least during the initial week—like addicts experience when they attempt to quit using drugs.
A study by University of Michigan is believed to be the first of its kind to evaluate withdrawal symptoms people incur when they stop devouring 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, said Erica Schulte, the study’s lead author and U-M psychology doctoral candidate.
Processed food scientists design foods to hit a satiety point or “yum factor.” This involves adjusting foods to salt, fat, and sugar levels that meet consumer preferences, as well as enabling enhanced shelf life. Employing scientists to dissect elements of the palate and tweak ratios of salt, sugar and fat to optimize taste, the processed food industry, Michael Moss says, has hooked consumers on their products the same way the cigarette industry hooked smokers on nicotine.
What all researchers can agree upon is 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 those 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.
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, the study found.
The U-M researchers did not focus on the method used to change their eating behavior, such as participants quitting “cold turkey” or gradually phasing out junk food. Schulte said future studies will analyze the behavior in real time rather than a retrospective approach as in the current findings.
The study implications suggest that withdrawal symptoms may make dietary changes challenging, which may contribute to people reverting back to bad eating habits, said Ashley Gearhardt, associate professor of psychology and co-author, along with U-M graduates Julia Smeal and Jessi Lewis.
Bottom line is the processed food industry designs their products to keep you eating them. When you hear their siren call, it’s best to put plugs in your ears and row on by. Choose frozen bananas and cocoa powder, with almonds, and add some protein powder if you need a little extra oomph. Enjoy each spoonful slowly. Drink flavored tea. I like hibiscus green tea, mostly decaf over ice. We can do this!
More information: Erica M. Schulte et al. Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale, Appetite (2018). DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2018.09.013
Provided by University of Michigan