Can Quitting Junk Food Cause Withdrawal?

As obesity and diet-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases have risen to record levels, much discussion and research have examined the concept of “food addictions.”

Recent evidence lends support to food addictions being a real and troubling phenomenon. Still, there isn’t a full consensus on whether or not the addiction model is valid or valuable in dietary contexts.

Food Additive Addictions

In response to the limited and sometimes conflicting studies in this field, some researchers are developing a more nuanced understanding of what is occurring. Many of these approaches focus specifically on ultra-processed foods – “industrial formulations typically with five or more ingredients.” 

These highly processed junk foods tend to be high in sugars, fats, and salts, and these ingredients result in addictive responses. This suggests that food addiction could be called “food additive” addiction more accurately.

What Junk Food Addiction Looks Like

Similar to other substance use disorders, common signs of a junk food addiction include:

  • Uncontrollably eating more than intended
  • Persistent craving
  • Unsuccessful attempts to limit or stop eating
  • Continued use despite negative consequences
  • Reduced effect of the usual amount (increased tolerance)
  • Anxiety or irritability when the habit is disrupted

If junk foods are addictive, does this mean that people who quit eating them will experience withdrawal symptoms?

What Junk Food Withdrawal Looks Like

When you are in the habit of eating certain foods, mainly processed foods with lots of added sugars and fats, your body and mind can get used to the routine.

You may feel anxious, irritable, stressed, or even depressed if you suddenly remove these foods.

Admittedly, these symptoms are probably not as severe as other substance use withdrawals, but they can be unpleasant enough to make quitting a challenge.

The good news is that these withdrawal symptoms tend to wear off after a week or two. If you make it past this period, you should start feeling better as your body settles into a healthier way of fueling itself.

Preventing Junk Food Relapse

While the withdrawal symptoms – if you even experience them at all – are likely only to last a short time, the next step on the path to healthier eating is all about staying away from these temptations.

Taking a cue from other treatment models, preventing relapse means learning new skills. It involves identifying triggers, knowing how to avoid tempting situations, building supportive relationships, and developing strategies for coping with difficult emotions.

If you observe yourself closely, you’ll probably find that you reach for comfort foods in response to stress or anxiety. Look for healthier ways to self-soothe and calm your mood. Take a walk, meditate, talk to a friend, or eat a healthy fruit instead.

Unhealthy foods are everywhere. They’re nearly impossible to avoid. But by developing better strategies to guide your food choices, you can learn to steer clear of these temptations and continue on your path to good health.