Quitting Junk Food Might Actually Be As Hard As Quitting Drugs



By Joy Stephenson-Laws, JD, Founder


Many Americans suffer from food addiction. In the majority of cases, this is not an addiction to healthy foods. Instead it is an addiction to processed foods which are so easily available to all of us.

Processed foods are convenient and pleasing to the tastebuds. Thanks to all the additives found in these foods, like artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup and sodium, it’s no wonder why it’s so hard to eat these foods in moderation.

Foods like potato chips are created with salt and fat and are sometimes referred to as hyperpalatable foods. Reportedly, “these  foods are carefully engineered to achieve a perfect balance to produce pleasure so people keep eating them.” As a result, those who consume these types of foods regularly “may begin to experience their eating as out of control.”

“In consuming these hyperpalatable foods—many of which people would describe as both ‘comfort’ and ‘junk’ food—individuals are looking for a certain sensation of pleasure or relief not unlike what people who use and abuse alcohol, nicotine, or cocaine seek.”

There is also some evidence that that eating salt triggers the release of dopamine, a chemical messenger that controls your brain’s pleasure center. Once your brain gets that first reward hit, it generally craves more.

Salt is naturally found in many healthy foods such as beets, carrots and celery.  But it is usually naturally present in the right proportions and not engineered to encourage addictive behavior. As a result, you most likely find it pretty easy to eat just a handful or small portion of these foods. For example, some brands of chips contain 170mg (7% of your daily value of salt) in just one serving (which is usually just a handful). However, one raw beet contains approximately 64 mg of sodium.  

There is also evidence that sugar is addicting, triggering that same reward signal in the brain that tells you ‘eat more, eat more.’ Again, healthy foods like beets naturally contain some sugar, but not nearly as much as donuts, cake and even some store bought pasta sauces and salad dressings.

A recent study by the University of Michigan suggested that when people who regularly ate junk food gave it up, they experienced similar withdrawal symptoms to people going through drug or alcohol withdrawal.

The study included 231 adults who “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.”

This may be why many people ‘relapse’ when they give up these foods and why they struggle to maintain a healthy weight.

You may be thinking that it’s much worse to relapse with drugs or alcohol than with junk food. This is a valid argument, however, you also cannot ignore that along with substance abuse, diseases like obesity, diabetes and hypertension are also additional side effects of eating junk food.

Furthermore, this study is about so much more than just being able to control junk food cravings and losing weight. What you eat affects your brain.

Unfortunately, just like an expensive car, your brain can be damaged if you ingest anything other than premium fuel. If substances from ’low-premium’ fuel (such as what you get from processed or refined foods) get to the brain, it has little ability to get rid of them,” according to Harvard Health.

“Diets high in refined sugars, for example, are harmful to the brain. In addition to worsening your body’s regulation of insulin, they also promote inflammation and oxidative stress. Multiple studies have found a correlation between a diet high in refined sugars and impaired brain function — and even a worsening of symptoms of mood disorders, such as depression.”

It is also important to note that the study did not emphasize if junk food withdrawal symptoms were more intense for people who quit cold turkey or for those who gradually weaned off these foods.

How You Can Be Proactive?

Well, I think the good news is that these withdrawal symptoms seemed to get better after two to five days. But, ultimately, this goes to show you that junk foods should not be a staple in your diet. It’s common knowledge they are simply not good for you, and I think you will agree that food should not be causing you to have withdrawal symptoms such as depression and anxiety. Junk foods are unnatural, nutrient-void foods, and our bodies need nutrients from whole, natural foods, like fruits, vegetables and legumes, in order to be healthy.

And what’s so great about the human body and mind is that it appears that if you eat healthily regularly, you actually may prefer this way of eating.

Healthy foods are not typically associated with the immediate release of rewarding neurotransmitters. But, for people who have switched their diets from eating the junk foods that lead to obesity, to healthy diets that have made noticeable improvements in terms of weight loss, these diets have become associated with rewarding outcomes,” according to this report about a study published in Nutrition & Diabetes.

What Else Can You Do?

  • Get good sleep. There is credible, research-based evidence that sleep loss is linked to snacking at night, junk food cravings, obesity and diabetes.
  • Get moving. Along with helping you burn excess calories and get rid of fat, exercise may help prevent those junk food cravings. One NIH study found that 12 weeks of moderate intensity aerobic exercise reduced sweet cravings and even improved cognitive restraint. And remember, always properly fuel your body for workouts.
  • Get help. If you are really struggling with your weight and eating too many junk foods, it’s important to get to the root of why this is. Maybe you have depression or use eating as a coping method to handle stress. You may want to consider speaking with a therapist or competent healthcare professional on how you can adjust your lifestyle so that you can overcome any obstacles that may be preventing you from living your healthiest life.
  • Get tested. Nutritional balance is key in both physical and mental health. If you have a nutrient deficiency, this could be why you may be feeling depressed and then, in turn, why you keep eating junk foods. This could also be why you give in to withdrawal symptoms and can’t seem to shake your junk food habit. You never want to have too much or too little of a certain nutrient.

Enjoy your healthy life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. This team also includes the members of the pH Medical Advisory Board, which constantly monitors all pH programs, products and services. To learn more about the pH Medical Advisory Board, click here.


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