The Role of Diet in Recovery
It is important for a recovering addict and those in their support system to understand the huge impact that nutrition can play in aiding them to overcome their addiction. Did you know that fat is the only thing that contains more calories per gram than alcohol? So it is easy to understand why drinking alcohol simulates a sense of fullness while many times an addict will have eaten very little or nothing at all. These "empty calories" set up a pattern of poor eating habits and in severe cases malnutrition.
Drug abusers can experience a similar effect because both alcohol and drugs keep the body from properly absorbing and breaking down nutrients and expelling toxins. This can lead to a long list of health problems.
The essence of the journey to recovery for an addict has to do with changing negative behaviors into positive ones. Good nutrition, relaxation, and exercise can all play an important role in an addict's successful recovery and a sustainable life long change. Learning to make healthy food choices is vital to achieving a healthy lifestyle.
How does addiction damage the brain?
Using drugs and alcohol creates a reward deficiency syndrome
in our brain created by chronic exposure to addictive substances which then requires that the food we consume be highly rewarding to the brain. Unfortunately, these foods are typically sweet, salty and, high in fat, examples include chips, cookies, and most processed snack foods. If addicts in early recovery are given unlimited access to highly rewarding food, they will predictably overeat causing them to trade one addiction for the other.
Excessive weight gain and food binging is just another addiction and can lead one back to using substances. An even bigger problem for recovering addicts is malnourishment. Malnourishment limits the ability of the brain to heal from the ravages of their addiction.
Vitamins are not enough
A common mistake made by all of us is to assume that the daily consumption of a multivitamin covers all of our nutritional needs. Supplemental vitamins can have it's place in a healthy diet especially if the person has a compromised ability to eat or has a limited diet. But patients in early recovery often think that if they use multivitamins they do not have to be as concerned with the nutritional quality of their food.
It is important for one to understand that supplemental vitamins do not contain the antioxidant potency of real food. Phytochemicals that are abundant in fresh foods cannot remain stable in a supplemental form. One of the most important nutrient for addiction recovery is fiber, found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds and it is of paramount importance to eat fiber from food and not fiber supplements. Fiber improves the gut function and help the body's system balance the microorganisms that live throughout the GI tract and, it cannot be overstressed enough, that the consumption of highly processed junk food can significantly hinder the recovery process and overall health in a number of ways including:
- Fluctuating blood sugar levels which impact mood and concentration
- Foods with no nutrient value can leave one feeling sluggish and lethargic
- Refined grains, added sugars, and added fats negatively impact the brain and it's ability to function
- High salt and high sugar foods condition the brain to expect food to taste a certain way; for example: Eating candy will make eating fruit become less appealing.
- Sweetened beverages will make drinking water less appealing
What usually happens?
Obviously there is a wide range of ways people in recovery eat and many factors such as food availability, financial resources, and food philosophy that plays a significant role in one's diet and thinking about diet.
Here is a typical list of a recovering addicts diet:
No breakfast which usually includes coffee with flavored creamer and sweeteners (often several cups), cigarettes (or "vape"), energy drink (or several), soft drinks and snack foods. If there is breakfast, it is typically a big meal with bacon, eggs, hash browns, and/or sugary cereal or pop tarts.
Often the first real meal of the day, sometimes there are snacks before. Lunch will typically be a (white flour) sandwich, burger, wrap, or pizza, all of which lack fruits and vegetables. Often lunch will be from a fast-food restaurant.
People in recovery might snack throughout the day and include candy, chips, cereal bars, soda, energy drinks and coffee
: Dinner typically consists of protein and starch and most skip any vegetables and in many cases are not even served at the dinner meal.
Late night is when the real eating occurs. Many patients are on night meds that can lead to loss of control and increased food consumption. Typical nighttime snacks: sugary cereal, ice cream, white flour products (bread, bagel, tortilla) with melted cheese, frozen foods (pizza, taquitos, etc.), and other highly processed foods that can lead to a full blown binge episode.
What Should you Eat?
The answer is simple: real food.
If a patient, after leaving a rehabilitation center, is offered a choice between addictive food and nutritious food, most will select the more "rewarding" choice. The problem is that this "reward" generated by the brain gives the patient the illusion that they are getting what they need, when in reality they are just stimulating dopamine pathways. What they really need is a diet high in protein, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Following the six food groups example a recovering addict should be eating fruits, vegetables, grain, dairy, animal protein, and plant protein such as beans, nuts, and seeds. The goal is to get representation from all six (6) food groups at least twice/day and to avoid "foods" that cannot be classified into this food group system.
Sample Daily Menu
A fruit smoothie with mixed frozen berries, bananas, spinach or arugula, yogurt, flax seeds, unsweetened almond milk
Cinnamon raisin whole grain bread with almond butter and a hard-boiled egg
Mixed raw veggies topped with tuna or chicken salad, with lentil soup
Piece of fruit, cheese and a handful of nuts
Whole grain like Quinoa, salmon (or other animal protein), asparagus or other green vegetable such as broccoli, a green salad topped with pine nuts
Bowl of frozen fruit topped nuts or seeds
What Can You Do?
If you are able, consult with a registered dietitian nutritionist, particularly one that has training and expertise in the addiction population. However there are foods and behaviors that you can avoid. In most cases they should be removed entirely from your home.
- No sweetened beverages (sodas, sports drinks, etc.) including "diet" drinks
- No candy (or highly sweetened foods)
- No fried foods (i.e. chips)
- No refined grains (use whole grains only)
- Cereals should have more grams of fiber than grams of sugar
- Dessert should only be served as dessert (once per day)
The primary focus should not be about what not to eat, and should always be about what you can eat. Retraining the brain to enjoy fresh vegetables, whole grains and fresh fruit, nuts and lean meats will change your life, recharge your brain and help you to sustain your recovery process. Many recovering addicts who adopt this lifestyle often find that their families are also getting healthier and making better food choices.