Junk Food Withdrawal is Real — Here's What You Need to Know
Pizza, fries, cupcakes, chips, candy — whatever your kryptonite is, we all have certain junk foods we can’t resist. And while cutting back on ultra-processed foods is a smart plan, it isn’t always…well, a piece of cake. (See what we did there?)
Junk food cravings can be hard to kick, and it turns out there may be more at play than just a lack of willpower: Recent research suggests “junk food withdrawal” might be a real phenomenon. Read on to learn about junk food addiction and how to cut back on those less-than-healthy foods you crave.
Addiction and Junk Food
Can’t seem to kick your junk food cravings? A 2018 study suggests that’s because giving up highly-processed foods cold turkey may actually trigger withdrawal symptoms — similar to the symptoms experienced when giving up addictive substances.
“Traditionally, withdrawal symptoms have been used for drugs,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Sonya Angelone, MS, RDN, CLT. “However, withdrawal symptoms from foods are mainly seen as cravings.”
Researchers at the University of Michigan developed the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale (ProWS), a tool that allowed participants to self-report physical and psychological withdrawal-type symptoms — including sadness, irritability, tiredness, and cravings — after cutting down on junk food.
Participants reported their junk food withdrawal symptoms were strongest between two and five days after cutting down on highly processed foods — which, researchers noted, is similar to the course of drug withdrawal. These withdrawal-type symptoms may make it harder to kick a junk food habit.
What Junk Food Does to the Brain
Our favorite comfort foods may have more power over us than we give them credit for. Not only can highly-processed junk foods affect the number on the scale, but they also directly affect certain receptors in our brains, causing the likelihood of cravings to increase, Angelone says.
What is it about junk food that causes us to crave more? “The salt, fat, and sugar mainly,” Angelone says. Past research on food addiction has suggested that our brains may be susceptible to crave sweet foods. Limited evidence also suggests the high salt and fat content in fast food may add to its addictive potential. And texture — like crispiness or crunchiness — may also have the potential to affect our cravings, Angelone adds.
Quitting Junk Food
So how do you give up junk food? The good news is, you don’t have to give it up completely. It’s okay to indulge here and there — but moderation is key, of course.
But if you feel like your junk food habit is out of your control, and is sabotaging your efforts to live a healthier life, then you may want to manage your access to the treats you crave most.
“First, don’t have junk food available,” Angelone says. If you stock your fridge and pantry with your favorite processed foods, it’s going to be hard to resist them — especially if you feel symptoms of junk food withdrawal, a.k.a. intense cravings — unless you have superhuman self control.
Angelone offers these other pro tips to break up with junk food: