Junk Food Addiction Study

Are the chemical additives in highly processed “junk” food addictive?  A new study has examined the issue and concludes that it appears it may be so.  The researchers found “when people cut junk food out of their diets, they can experience withdrawals similar to drug addiction”.

“Food addiction posits that highly processed foods may be capable of triggering addictive-like symptoms in some individuals, including withdrawal. ”

-E. Schulte, et al., study authors

Study Overview

Study participants were recruited online through Amazon Mechanical Turk. There were 231 participants, aged 19–68 (51.9% were female).  Participants were asked to report any physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms they might have experienced after having cut down on or abstaining from junk foods over the past year. Researchers administered a new measuring tool, the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale (ProWS), which was adapted from self-report measures of drug withdrawal.  Paralleling the course of drug withdrawal, symptoms assessed by the ProWS were reported as most intense between days 2–5 during an attempt to cut down.  Among other variables, the results revealed self-reported addictive-like eating and weight cycling surrounding junk food consumption.

Study participants were instructed that “if they had multiple attempts to quit [consuming highly processed junk food], they were asked to report their most recent one. They were then asked to report if they showed any of the kinds of withdrawal symptoms that a person has when they try to cut down on nicotine and cannabis use.

Beyond this, they were asked if their attempts to cut down on or remove the foods from their diets were successful, and how they determined what that “success” was.

Subjects reported that they experienced sadness, tiredness, cravings, and increased irritability in the first two to five days after quitting junk food. [Similar to trends in abstaining from recognized addictive substances] these symptoms [associated with junk food withdrawal] eventually cooled off after those initial few days.”    –source

The Fuzzy Parts

It is important to note that the data collection of this study relied on self-report of the participants’ memory of how they reacted after consuming and then abstaining from junk food and as we know, human memory can be notoriously faulty–even within a short period following an event, let alone within a year’s time.

It is also important to note that physiological data were not collected on the subjects before and after withdrawing from highly processed junk food, so the researchers relied solely on testimony (memory of one’s reactions to withdrawing from/abstaining from junk food).

For these two reasons, at the present time we need to be careful about classifying junk food addictions in the same way as alcohol and other drug addictions are classified in the U.S.  Alcohol and other drug addictions are clearly defined in the DSMVI and these definitions affect critical financial and legal ramifications in both the individual and corporate arenas.  For example, having an official diagnosis of a substance addiction determines whether (and how much) treatment is covered by health insurance, and to varying degrees depending upon the situation, it also protects individuals from being fired by employers solely because the employee has an addiction. Likewise, in a court of law having an official diagnosis from the DSMVI can affect the legal standing of the diagnosed individual, both as a plaintiff and as a defendant.

The Important Takeaway

While we are quite awhile away from categorizing addiction-like reactions to junk food (or food chemicals) to that of full-fledged “substance addictions”, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.  There are far too many people who have anecdotal reports stemming back for many years about adverse reactions they have experienced from (a) consuming highly processed, chemical-laden junk food, and (b) getting off of or abstaining from junk food following a protracted period of consumption.  To simply discard all of this testimony out of hand because these individuals did not receive a brain scan prior to and following their consumption/abstention of junk food seems a bit extreme. This is especially true given the amount of new synthetic and industrialized food additives being created each year to entice consumers:

CFL slide-Big Food creates addictions

Much more than sugar and salt

Without minimizing the effects of both sugar and salt on the body, we must also acknowledge the potential effects of numerous other food additives that may be at play in triggering adverse reactions from highly processed foods.  There is a substantial body of research evidence stemming back decades linking adverse reactions to numerous food additives including preservatives, dyes, emulsifiers, flavor enhancers, and so on. Among the adverse reactions linked with some of these additives are those that appear to affect cognition and emotion centers of the brain.

CFL slide-Brain-related issues linked with additives

A Physiological Link

There are certainly people who will always dismiss human reports of their own experiences as unreliable.  For those who require physiological data as evidence of the potential addictive qualities of food additives in highly processed food, we are in the early stages of that research as well.

CFL Graphic-oreo cookies addiction

Disturbing Testimony

Whether or not you believe that some people are susceptible to experiencing addiction-like reactions to the food additives in highly processed food, their testimonies speak to something that is most definitely troubling–especially given that children have access to these foods.  Take for example this account from the CFL book.

CFL slide-Additive addiiction quote



Journal reference:  Schulte, E. M., et al., Development of the Highly Processed Food Withdrawal Scale, Journal of Appetite, Volume 131, 1 December 2018, Pages 148-154.

Study: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2018.09.013

Study abstract