Why Quitting Junk Food Can Feel Similar To Quitting Drugs

Photo by Tatjana Zlatkovic

Most people can attest to how hard it is to give up junk food. Sugary, processed foods aren't just delicious (and all-too convenient); they've been shown to be as addictive as cocaine. And now, new research suggests that foregoing junk food can even bring on withdrawal symptoms similar to what happens when you quit addictive substances like tobacco, drugs, or alcohol.

For the study, conducted by the University of Michigan, researchers asked 231 people to report how they felt after reducing their intake of highly processed foods, like pastries, pizza, and french fries. Just like with drug addiction, participants reported feeling sad, irritable, and tired in the days after they’d given up junk food, in addition to feeling intense cravings for it. Those symptoms generally lasted two to five days and then tapered off—similar to the timeline of drug withdrawal.

The results aren’t surprising, considering how much research has been done on the addictive nature of sugar. But it's a good reminder that sugary, processed foods can be shockingly hard to give up.

“Bingeing on sugar and other addictive foods is culturally condoned, food company-induced drug addiction,” holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora, M.D., told mbg. “At the neurobiological level, the neural substrates of sugar and sweet reward appear to be more robust than those of cocaine.”

And it's not just about having a so-called "sweet tooth." Our addiction to such foods is deeply ingrained, and it has less to do with willpower and more to do with the fact that these foods trigger the brain's dopamine-fueled reward center (the nucleus accumbens, a.k.a. the “good feels” portion of our brain) and tell us we want more.

Based on the study's findings, the authors believe many people who experience such withdrawal symptoms will end up resorting back to their unhealthy eating habits. But don’t lose hope just yet: This particular study didn’t look at the specific strategies people used to quit junk food, and experts like Dr. Vora believe there are a few effective ways to quit junk food that won’t leave you hangry or giving into cravings two hours later.

The most important key to success is having a plan. Acknowledge the fact that you very well may be irritable or experience flu-like symptoms for a few days, Dr. Vora says, and don’t try to go cold turkey on everything all at once. Start by eliminating one item from your diet per week, noting changes as you go. That way, it’ll feel less overwhelming and more manageable. When the cravings do hit, integrative medicine doctor Amy Shah, M.D., recommends finding ways to distract yourself—even a short 15-minute walk can go a long way. And definitely be prepared with pre-made meals, sugar-free snacks, and ample hydration.

It may not go perfectly (does anything?), but cutting down on junk food and making space in your diet for healthier foods is very possible with the right game plan and expectations.

Want to learn how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Kelly LeVeque.

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