Several things go by the wayside when we are in the midst of our addiction, and nutrition is definitely one of them. Why should we care about nutrition or even food in general? We have more important things to worry about like getting drunk or high. In lots of cases, our addiction will cause us to disregard food almost entirely.
This is bad for multiple reasons. For starters, you are a living organism and, as I’m sure you’re aware, you need food to survive. If you’re not a living organism, well, I’m not sure how you’re reading this. On top of needing food, ideally you would have a balanced, relatively healthy diet. This is something that doesn’t often mix with addiction.
When we get sober, one of the oft overlooked aspects of our recovery is our diet. While yes, the diet does play a secondary role to working the steps, getting service positions, and attending meetings/group settings, it is still important. We feel physically better without the need to constantly pump drugs and alcohol into our systems, why not feel even more better with a healthy balanced diet.
In this article, we’ll discuss nutrition in recovery.
The Link Between Substance Abuse and Poor Nutrition
When I was in the midst of my addiction, a healthy diet was the last of my concerns. My main concerns involved making sure I had enough booze to last through the day, just scraping by enough to pass off as a functioning human being, and, well, that’s pretty much it. Food became either an afterthought or a massive unhealthy thing I craved when wasted. That’s a bad thing, because generally pizza, candy and fast food aren’t healthy staple foods.
The effects on nutrition go beyond food choices and vary based on the substance. According to The Gateway Foundation, these include:
Alcoholics aren’t known for making good choices regarding nutrition. As mentioned above, healthy habits go out the window with constant drinking. Alcohol abuse can cause severe harm to the pancreas and the liver. This, as you can probably guess, is very bad. The pancreas creates enzymes necessary for digesting fats, protein and carbs and produces hormones to balance blood sugar. The liver breaks down toxins. I probably don’t need to explain the danger of losing those organ functions. I’ve known people who’ve gotten pancreatitis from drinking, and it is among the most painful things someone can experience. When I was in treatment, I met some people experiencing liver disease, causing severe pain and jaundice. As much of a great show as The Simpsons is (well, the first 10 seasons and the Treehouse of Horror episodes), you don’t want your skin tone to match theirs.
There is a stereotype of the skinny heroin addict, and there’s a reason for that. Opioids produce excess dopamine, which can suppress your appetite. This leads to skipping meals, eating less than two meals per day, and having less energy. Opioids can also lead to opioid-induced constipation, which only accelerates the appetite suppression as eating can become painful.
Another drug where a stereotypical user is very skinny, stimulants suppress the appetite. This doesn’t lead to less energy, because, well, they’re stimulants, but this can lead to dehydration and malnutrition. This is why people who are addicted to stimulants experience massive weight loss over the course of their use. This can affect you when you quit too, as you may experience a massive spike in appetite, leading to overeating that might overwhelm your weakened digestive system.
Why is Proper Nutrition so Important in Recovery?
Proper nutrition is important to everyone, including addicts and alcoholics. As someone in recovery who leads a very active lifestyle and (generally) eats a healthy diet, I can tell you that the energy gained from exercise and diet is real.
The Impact of Nutrition on Brain Health During Recovery
Our brains tend to get battered during our addiction. Oftentimes, drugs can affect our brain’s neuroplasticity. Don’t worry, I also had to look up what that word means. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself and grow by forming new neural connections. Essentially, when you learn new information or change habits, the neurons in your brain can adapt and adjust to accommodate this new information. An example of this would be the change in the neurons responsible for language when you learn a new language. Drugs and alcohol can disrupt this process.
Luckily, nutrition can help heal this process in sobriety, and there are several building blocks of this, including:
- Carbohydrates – Carbs are the body’s primary energy source and help the brain produce serotonin, the neurotransmitter necessary for a stable mood and healthy sleep
- Amino Acids – You need amino acids to produce dopamine. As I’m sure you’re all aware, your dopamine production is already damaged when you get into addiction, and this can be a way to begin fixing that
- Dietary Fat – Dietary fat can reduce inflammation and protect the integrity of cell membranes of the brain.
How sugar consumption affects recovery
Candy is always delicious, but it’s especially delicious when you’re in early recovery. Alcoholics have especially intense sugar cravings. This is due to the fact that alcohol has lots of sugar, so the brains and bodies of alcoholics are used to a high level of sugar from drinking. Sugar can also affect dopamine levels, something massively unbalanced for those in early recovery. Oftentimes at meetings, including my homegroup, there will be either candy, cookies, or donuts available, which adds even more temptation for people in recovery.
As I’m sure you’re all aware, sugary foods (candy, cake, pie, cheesecake, etc.) are bad for you. Excessive consumption can lead to weight gain and high blood pressure. In early recovery, sugar is better than using, but eat candy in moderation (which is easier said than done). To thwart excessive sugar cravings, you can try healthier activities that produce dopamine like exercise, recreational sports, music, yoga, or art. On top of that, group therapy, individual therapy, and support groups can help you build healthier habits.
Tips for Achieving a Healthy Diet
There are several ways to improve your diet while in recovery, these include:
Drinking more water
Where there is water, there is life. That is true of all life on earth, including humans who happen to be addicts and/or alcoholics. Staying hydrated is essential for improved health.
Running, biking, swimming, hiking, soccer, weightlifting, yoga, Pilates, skiing, gymnastics, cross country skiing, mountain climbing, that winter Olympics sport where you cross country ski and randomly shoot a rifle at a target, hockey, wingsuit flying. Whatever the activity, if it gets you moving, it can help you. You don’t need to instantly run 12 miles every day, running 1 or 2 is good for you too. Okay maybe not wingsuit flying, that’s extremely dangerous.
Fruits and Vegetables
You’ve heard it since you were a little kid, eat your fruits and vegetables. There’s a reason that’s a cliched recommendation. Fruits and vegetables generally have lots of nutrients (some more than others). Not only that, but there are plenty of tasty options for both.
Protein: Preferably lean, and not fried
Proteins are one of the building blocks of body tissue and are a great source of energy. Lean protein is especially helpful in that regard. If you’re taking the above advice and exercising, I or anyone else who is very active will tell you that protein is extremely important for workout recovery.
Don’t fast or go too long without eating
This doesn’t mean you should eat all day every day. This just means that you shouldn’t have any 7 or 8 hour stretches with no food.
Don’t Skip Breakfast
Speaking of long stretches without food, you shouldn’t skip breakfast. That doesn’t mean you have to cook a massive breakfast for yourself every morning with a big omelet, bacon, hash browns and toast. Something simple like oatmeal, fruit, yogurt, a bowl of cereal, Pop Tarts or a Clif Bar will do the trick. Though if you want to cook a massive breakfast have at it or do what I sometimes do and cook breakfast for dinner, or brinner, which doesn’t roll off the tongue the brunch does, but I digress.
This doesn’t mean cutting out all caffeine, just don’t chug coffee or energy drinks all day. Speaking of energy drinks, you probably want to avoid those because they’re not good for you.
As mentioned above, excessive sugar is bad for you. As was also mentioned above, this doesn’t mean cutting out all sugar. Candy, ice cream, pies, cakes, and doughnuts are delicious treats, but shouldn’t be a staple of your diet.