Withdrawal from food – is it real?

It’s widely known that people trying to quit alcohol or drugs go through a powerful withdrawal phase. But does a similar withdrawal process happen when you try to wean yourself off addictive foods?

Withdrawal is a physiological readjustment that takes place with the removal of a habit forming substance. Food addiction isn’t formally recognised as a substance use disorder. It’s generally not yet too widely accepted that food can be just as addictive as other psychoactive drugs. As a result, if you go to a doctor and say that you just can’t stop eating and that you’re experiencing powerful withdrawal symptoms, it’s not likely you’ll get any help. And you might go home trying, once again, to undertake your own personal withdrawal experiment only to give in to powerful physical cravings after a few minutes, hours or days.

Often people feel ashamed because they just can’t stop eating. But rest assured, there IS scientific evidence that withdrawal from food is REAL! The most well known study is probably that of Avena, which shows the similarities in the brain chemistry of mice when ingesting drugs and when ingesting sugar. The study found changes in the dopamine and opioid receptors of the brains of mice when sugar was ingested and biochemical withdrawal symptoms when sugar was removed. The sugar withdrawal caused the mice to be disoriented and as soon as more sugar was made available they went back for more.  

According to Phil Werdell in an unpublished paper on withdrawal from food, this parallels what happens for humans with diagnosis for addiction. In this paper, Werdell’s recounts his clinical experience in working with thousands of food addicts over more than 30 years. He found that those food addicts being detoxified often show withdrawal symptoms including shakes, headaches, irritability, fatigue, insomnia, sleepiness, nervousness, irritability, depression and feelings of being hot or cold.  Many of these symptoms went away after just a few days of clean abstinence from binge foods. At a hospital-based treatment program for food addiction that Werdell was involved with, while almost all of patients had symptoms of major depression upon entering the program, half reported their depression easing or gone entirely by the end of the week as a result of eliminating their binge foods.

Werdell’s clinical experience shows that food addiction isn’t just eating to soothe tension, anxiety, mental fatigue or depression. Though this soothing of difficult feelings is most definitely a big part of the experience for many addictive eaters, the addictive aspect of the eating is that there is a physiological change in the food addict’s digestive system and brain which causes craving and, ultimately, loss of control because of the craving. In short, you can’t stop overeating because you’re chemically addicted.  

There you have it! The next question you might ask is: How long does the withdrawal period last? The jury’s out on this. Werdell reports that it lasts three to five days but may take up to 30 days. I’ve also heard about withdrawal symptoms lasting for a few months, even though they get weaker over time.

Here’s a list of withdrawal symptoms developed by registered nurse and food addiction specialist Bitten Jonsson from Sweden based on her clinical experience with thousands of clients:

  • tiredness
  • restless-wired
  • headache
  • migraines
  • nauseated
  • irritable
  • nervous
  • anxious
  • confused
  • concentration problems
  • joint aches
  • edema
  • muscle pain
  • diarrhea
  • perspiration
  • weakness
  • shivers and shakes
  • depression
  • exhaustion
  • runny nose
  • euphoria
  • vomiting
  • sleep disturbance
  • dizziness

This very real physical withdrawal from food often creates a situation where ’it gets worse before it gets better.’ That’s why so many people trying to do it alone often relapse as a result of these strong symptoms. It’s most helpful to have more structure and support, like alcoholics and drug addicts going through withdrawal, at least in the first week.