How Nutrition Helps With Recovery
Taking care of your physical health is an important part of addiction recovery. Part of that is making sure you are eating healthy, nutritious food which plays a massive role in recovery. Food can impact not just how you feel physically but it can also impact how you feel emotionally including your mood and energy levels. If you eat crappy food you won’t feel as good as you would if you ate healthy nutritious meals.
Eating healthy plays a big role in reversing damages caused by addiction such as the effects of weight, insulin levels, heart health, etc. Part of the Sobriety Success Method is incorporating healthy practices which starts with taking care of your physical body including proper nutrition, exercise and physical activity, and getting good sleep.
How does nutritional planning work for addiction recovery?
Rebecca Place Miller, a Science writer for Many Hands Sustainability Center says, “Addiction can lead to diet-related problems like hypoglycemia, adrenal fatigue, allergies, and digestive problems.” When struggling with an addiction, whether it’s a drug addiction, alcohol abuse or a behavior such as porn or gambling, it’s not uncommon for people to neglect their nutrition. Whether you struggle with substance abuse or a behavior addiction, the addiction has always come first. So it’s likely that your body hasn’t been getting the right nutrition or nutrients it needs and some people even suffer from malnutrition.
After you detox and start a recovery program, if you continue to not make nutrition a priority, your body won’t recover as fast as it would if you start making those changes right away. Once you start focusing on nutrition and after your withdrawal symptoms have subsided, your mind will be a lot clearer and capable of handling things like triggers and impulses that come your way.
Think of healthy eating as being on a spectrum. To the left you will have those with a poor diet who don’t have any sort of eating schedule, eat foods that are high in fat and sugar, drink soda every day, eat donuts for breakfast, fast food, no portion control and overall poor nutrition. And then all the way to the right. You’ll have those who plan, prep, and prepare their food, spend a lot of time researching and picking out what they buy, eat only organic, whole, non processed foods, take health supplements and never stray away from the plan.
I’m going to assume that most of you are somewhere in the middle, maybe leaning slightly more to the left or right. So that means there’s never going to be a one size fits all plan that everyone can be on board with because nobody would ever expect you to go from 0-10 overnight. And on the flip side, a lot of people think they are eating healthy nutritious meals and don’t need to focus on the food part, but in reality there’s always room to improve, no matter where you’re at.
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Getting Rid of Junk Food and Portion Control
Getting rid of junk and eating the right amount are the two most difficult tasks to master when eating healthy. Junk food contributes to poor blood sugar levels, obesity and even vitamin deficiencies. Most people eat junk food and I know that the term junk food can be very subjective. For now, just think of junk food as the obvious: things that are sweet like cookies, donuts, sugary cereals, highly processed food or foods high in fat like what you might get a Mcdonalds – burger, french fries, milk shake, and so on. So start by thinking about how you can gradually start to decrease the amount of junk food you eat.
- Can you eat out less?
- Can you stop purchasing things like soda and cookies?
- And then with that being said, how can you ensure you are eating the right amount?
When overcoming a drug, alcohol, or behavior addiction, your appetite may increase or decrease. Snacking throughout the day is generally a bad idea because those calories add up over time. It’s much healthier to portion your food out for the day and eat what you know to be healthy. You can do this by counting calories or just generally knowing the food groups and how a portion is the size of your fist.
Does Nutrition Planning Mean Sticking to a Strict Diet?
So for those who are new to healthy eating, I usually recommend starting with research. Spend some time on the internet so you can read and see how impactful nutrition is on the body and when you’re learning to kick an addiction, healthy eating can and will make a huge difference in how you recover. Research things like the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates and how certain foods can cause major health issues like heart disease or perhaps a health condition you may even be struggling with now.
Once you’ve done some research, look into the health benefits of nutrition plans. There are basic ones that are set by governments such as myplate.gov where, for free based on your height and weight, they will send you meal plans. The UK has the eatwell guide and most governments offer some variety of a basic healthy meal plan. At Live Rehab we focus on healthy foods as it relates to addiction and recovery, not so much on a weight loss goal unless you feel it’s important for your journey.
The hardest part about eating healthy is changing your habits. Just like stopping an addiction, it’s more about changing the way you live. It’s the same for food choices, behavior changes can be the hardest but if you have a plan, it does make things a bit easier.
So once you get the basics down, which is where I recommend people start who have never tried any sort of meal planning, you can then move on to other plans, depending on your goals. There are tons to choose from but you’ll need to look into them to make sure they are reputable, have good reviews, and so on. There are even sites that can help you build your own nutrition plan if following a formal plan isn’t your thing.
Stock up on items to ensure you success
Once you have figured out what sort of nutritional plan you’ll do, it’s important to stock up on items so that you are successful. There is nothing more annoying than preparing a healthy meal only to find out you don’t have a specific item needed. If your meal plan includes lots of smoothies do you have a blender? If your meal plan includes cutting fresh vegetables do you have a sharp knife? Things like that. Making sure you have the items needed can make the entire process more fun as well as less stressful and the less likely you’ll want to throw in the towel.
So let’s go back to the basics. Meal planning isn’t easy but it’s necessary for a healthy nutrition plan. So what I recommend is that you set aside an hour each week to plan. This can be any day but it’s important to do this before you do your weekly shopping. So let’s say for example, you do this on Saturday morning at 10am.
Make a list or chart and list out every single meal you’ll be eating for the week. Include breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks between meals. If you’re following a plan there’s usually recipes that go along with it, if you’re not following a plan then you’ll need to figure out what you know how to cook or get recipes online. Make sure your list includes balanced meals with plenty of vegetables and leafy greens.
A shopping list
So once you fill in all of your regular meals, then you’ll need to make a shopping list based off that meal plan. If you are planning on shopping for multiple people then be sure to include them in your meal planning. This is important if you’re eating different meals. I usually try to encourage entire families to get on board with healthy eating or at a bare minimum, the entire family on board to eat healthy dinners together but life is life and if you’re eating separate things then make a meal plan for everyone in your family.
For example, for me personally, I eat homemade granola with oat milk for breakfast but my kids usually like to grab something on the go, so it’s usually a bagel with peanut butter or a piece of fruit. So for breakfast, I input the granola and milk for my husband and me and then bagel or fruit for my kids.
So back to the list, transfer all ingredients to your list. Once you have the list don’t stray away from it. Do not buy unnecessary junk food or extra items just because. Sticking to a list isn’t easy at first but it does get easier over time.
If you have people in your home who are not on board no matter how hard you try to convince them, it can be easier and less stressful to buy what they want but it does make it harder to stick to the nutritional plan when other people are eating not so healthy stuff around you. So if that’s your situation, I usually recommend putting their food in a different cupboard, a place where you won’t be so tempted.
At first, you might feel a little down or sad about not engaging in unhealthy eating while other people in your family seem to enjoy it but you have to be strong and stick to your guns, just like drugs or alcohol. Lead by example and they will see your progress and hopefully one day they will come around and want to eat healthy too.
A lot of people shop online now for groceries and if you can do that, it might help with temptations. How many times do we go into the store and come out with more than we said we would? You’ll still have temptations when shopping online with the suggested items on the site but it’s not as bad as when you’re right there with the item in your hand, it’s a bit easier to pass it up.
The first thing you should always do is get rid of juice and soda and replace it with water. Staying hydrated will really help detoxify your body and can also help triggers which reduces the risk of relapse. I usually tell my students to grab a water bottle that measures the water so you can aim to drink 3-4 liters per day. Get used to drinking water as that is really what your body needs to stay healthy and reduces the risk of electrolyte imbalance. And don’t buy into flavoured water. Flavoured water always has either sugar or sweetener and sweetener is not good for you.
Vitamin and Mineral Suggestions
Essential vitamins and minerals are a good way to replenish your body and give it the lacking nutrients it needs. Most of the time, people get their sources of vitamins from having a well balanced diet and eating lots of leafy greens but chances are, your body is vitamin deficient in some areas especially if you are coming off drugs or alcohol. Some people find raw apple cider vinegar to be a health benefit when quitting drinking.
A good multivitamin is a good place to start but if you have the resources and are able to get a health check up with blood work, I recommend that so you can see if you are vitamin deficient in other areas like iron, vitamin D, etc. You may need to add amino acids, folic acid, or omega-3 fatty acids to get the essential nutrients your body needs. Vitamin deficiencies can lead to major health conditions such as an increased risk of heart disease, lower organ function, liver damage, liver disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. One example is Korsakoff syndrome which is a chronic memory disorder caused by severe thiamine deficiency (Vitamin B-1). Korsakoff syndrome is most commonly caused by alcohol addiction.
Know when to call your doctor
Most people will feel better once they adjust their food intake to reflect a proper diet. If you’ve made significant nutritional improvements but still struggle with tiredness, weight gain, stomach issues, etc. you should call a medical professional to get medical advice and a full complete check up, including blood work.
I had a client who was in recovery from substance abuse and eating very well. However, week after week he was just complaining about how tired he was and how he could barely focus at work. We finally made a plan for him to see his GP and get some blood work done and it turned out he was suffering from an undiagnosed auto-immune disorder. Once he got that all sorted out, everything just really turned around for him. For most of you, making healthier nutrition choices is going to do wonders how you feel and how you’re able to adjust to life in recovery.
If you’re unsure, give it a few weeks, see how you feel and then make an appointment. It never hurts to get a basic check up to ensure you are getting the proper nutrition, vitamins, minerals and amino acids. If you have a nutritional deficiency such as lack of thiamine you may be eligible for nutrition therapy, nutrition education classes, or mineral supplements, depending on your situation.
Always look for ways to improve in your recovery
And with all this being said, nutrition and a healthy diet is a lifelong experience. There are always things you can do to improve your diet, whether it’s reducing your meat intake, going organic, getting rid of processed foods, and so on. I usually recommend changing one small thing each week and over a period of time you’ll see the benefits. So let’s say this week you had pre-packaged mashed potatoes on the menu. Maybe next week you could try making the mashed potatoes on your own. Or if you are used to eating canned vegetables perhaps looking at ways to eat them fresh.
Don’t worry too much if you struggle with this. It’s not uncommon for people to be very motivated to quit their drug, alcohol, or behavior addiction but struggle more with their nutrition. It’s common for people in recovery to turn to food. Food can be an addiction as well. Like other addictive substances and behaviors, eating food releases the feel good chemical dopamine. Trading one addiction for another can be an issue so it’s important to stay on top of the risks or food addiction and focus on having healthy eating habits.
Think about it this way, you’ve been struggling with an addiction for however long – 2 years, 5 years, 10 years, maybe even 20 years but you’ve been eating for your whole life so to change life long habits can be especially hard. It’s natural to want to turn to food when quitting an addiction as well. I grew up with a family of smokers and I remember listening to conversations my mom would have with her friends about how they wanted to quit smoking but didn’t want to gain the weight as apparently everyone they knew gained a bunch of weight after smoking. Did the lack of nicotine cause them to gain weight? No – it was that they would turn to food as a way to comfort them like how they would turn to smoking as a way to comfort them.
Same thing can be said for any drug, alcohol or behavior addiction. People in recovery who struggle with alcohol abuse tend to eat less as beer especially can be very filling so it’s no surprise they eat more when quitting alcohol. Stimulants and opioids can act as appetite suppressants. People who struggle with behavior addictions such as porn will neglect to eat properly as they spend most of their free time engaging in their behaviors – so their meal patterns are generally very off and will tend to eat more at varying times.
No matter what your addiction, it will take time for your body to be able to regulate and to be able to figure out what healthy portions are and what the right times for you to eat. Overtime, you will notice positive changes such as increased energy and brain function, ability to fight triggers and alcohol cravings, drug cravings, and overall feeling better. Those who struggle with mental health disorders also report less symptoms when eating healthy. Many damages caused by a substance use disorder such as gastrointestinal disorders are reversible so when you are taking care of your nutrition you are helping your body through the healing process.
Just keep working on it every day, be patient with yourself and know that small changes over time are more sustainable than making giant leaps today.
Where to find more information about nutrition and addiction recovery
Not everyone can give up their work, family or pets to attend expensive addiction treatment programs. There are lots of treatment options out there for those who struggle with substance abuse or a behavior addiction but if you are looking for a flexible treatment plan that doesn’t involve attending treatment centers in person, check out Live Rehab. We take a holistic approach to the recovery process whether it’s alcohol, a behavior, or any drug of choice, we welcome you.
You got this.