Nutrition and Food in Addiction Recovery: What to Eat and What to Avoid

An exploration into nutrition and addiction recovery. Plus, a list of foods you SHOULD eat or should AVOID eating during the recovery process. Read our suggestions and find out more about health lifestyle changes in recovery here.

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Junk food puts you at risk of relapse

Take a moment to take this in: one of the critical risk factors for recovery is poor nutrition. In fact, ignoring your food habits can put you at risk of relapse. To put it simply, eating “junk food” may lead to drinking or drug use. The reason is that junk food is highly-processed. Certain foods that contain:

  • preservatives
  • hormones
  • artificial colorings
  • sugar

…each of these ingredients affect your body more badly than you think.

So, what should and shouldn’t you eat and drink during addiction reocovery? Can nutrition help boost recovery? In this article, we provide information about the importance of nutrition when dealing with addiction. If you’d like to share an experience and/or still have questions about this topic at the end, please share them below. We try to respond personally to all our readers.

The importance of nutrition in recovery

Appetite usually returns during the first few weeks and months after you quit using drugs or alcohol. This is why a person in recovery is often more likely to overeat, particularly if your drug-of-choice was a type of stimulant (cocaine, amphetamines, or meth).

Recovery from substance use affects the body in different ways, including metabolism (processing energy), organ function, and mental well-being. Proper nutrition can help the healing process of all these bodily functions. Nutrients supply the body with energy, and provide the building blocks you need to heal and maintain healthy organs and fight off infections.

Recovering drug and alcohol addicts benefit from food that has the highest nutritional value. A variety of certain foods help strengthen the immune system and build up the tissues in the body, including improved performance of brain cells. In this way, balanced nutrition truly helps improve mood and health. When a person feels better, they are less likely to return to alcohol and drugs.

Top 7 foods TO eat during recovery

Given that it is important to encourage a healthy diet for anyone in the early stages of recovery, what foods are best? Here is a list of seven (7) food types that you should aim to fill on your plate.

1. Whole foods

Whole foods are foods that haven’t been processed or refined before they’re eaten. They don’t contain additives like salts, fats or other preservatives that you’d find in processed and refined foods. It is recommended that you eat food with all the parts, including peels or skin, to get all possible nutrients.

2. Whole Grains

Whole grains provide your body with the outer (bran) and the inner (germ) layers along with starch. Because the body cannot digest whole grains as quickly as processed grains, it helps keep the blood sugar and insulin levels from fluctuating (rising and falling). This is particularly useful for those who are hypoglycemic.

3. Fiber

Fiber is a tough, chewy plant substance that does not break down in the stomach and helps to move digested food smoothly through the intestine. Fiber also helps to moderate the absorption of carbohydrates. Even complex carbohydrates can break down too quickly into glucose and cause a hypoglycemic reaction if fiber is totally absent.

4. Protein

A majority of the nutritionally-based programs point out the importance of a high protein diet. Eat proteins, mainly from legumes (beans), whole grains, brown rice, seeds, raw nuts, eggs, fish, and meats like organically-grown chicken. Be sure to get a good mix of proteins that are complete so that you get all of the essential amino acids too.

5. Fats

Good quality fats are an important component of the diet for a recovering addict. The best sources are from oils found in nuts, seeds, and fish. High quality flax seed oil and fish oils can also provide your organism with Omega-3 fatty acids, which are deficient in many people. Also look for extra virgin, cold-pressed oils (e.g., olive oil and coconut oils) that have not lost nutrients to processing. Stay away from highly-processed oils, hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, as well as oils in fried foods.

6. Fruits and Vegetables

Don’t forget fruit and veggies! Fruits and vegetables are among the most important foods in recovery as they are high in vitamins and minerals and low in fat and calories. Eat locally-grown fruits and vegetables when they are in season. Fruits and veggies that are fully ripened on a tree or a vine are more nutritious than those that are picked before they are ripened, and then shipped long distances before being stocked in your supermarket.

7. Seafood

Seafood is good for those in recovery as it provides complete proteins and vitamin B12. It is also a good source of Omega-3 essential fatty acids, which can reduce immunological problems like arthritis and asthma. Eating seafood as a part of your recovery diet can provide you with important trace minerals like iodine, fluoride, selenium, zinc, and copper, and several major minerals. Phosphorus, magnesium, sodium, potassium, and iron are all found in fish.

The TOP 5 foods TO AVOID during recovery

#1 BAD FOOD = Sugar

Sugar is one of the common foods that recovering addicts turn to when trying to stay clean and sober. You see, sugar works much like drugs and alcohol to provide temporary relief from the low blood sugar levels, which are common among recovering addicts. Unfortunately, consuming sugar in the form of candy bars, cake, doughnuts, and soda (along with other highly-refined carbohydrates like white flour) can exacerbate hypoglycemic problems.

Further, refined sugars like sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, and dextrose provide no nutritional value. In fact, they do the opposite, and deplete the body of enzymes, minerals and vitamins, especially the B-complex vitamins. When a meal is nutritionally poor, your body must use up the nutritents from its own reserves to be able to metabolize the sugar, thus robbing you of precious nutrients.

#2 BAD FOOD = Processed Foods

Processed foods are foods that have been altered from their original natural state for safety or convenience. These include food that has been cut, diced, cooked, puffed, ground, canned, or changed from their initial state. Anything that is sold on the “inner aisles” of the grocery store should be avoided. Still, not all processed foods are bad. For example, frozen food is processed but is still a good source for fruits and vegetables when fresh is not available.

#3 BAD FOOD = White Flour

White flour is a highly-processed food choice and should be avoided. White flour is found in most commercial breads, crackers, pasta, bagels and pancake mixes. Avoid these types of food and replace them with whole grains and complex carbohydrates.

The body breaks down white bread like sugar and it can lead to many of the problems mentioned above. When whole wheat flour is processed and turned into white flour, the B-vitamins, as well as vitamin E, calcium, zinc, copper, manganese, potassium, and fiber are removed. Because it is lacking fiber, it can cause constipation and other bowel problems. Wheat is also a major allergen and may cause reactions like headaches, fatigue, malabsorption, irritability, upper respiratory congestion, nausea, diarrhea, and other bowel disorders like celiac and Crohn’s disease.

#4 BAD FOOD = Additives

A number of additives in food have been associated with changes in the brain and can contribute to hyperactivity and/or learning difficulties. Some of these additives include:

  • aspartame which is the artificial sweetener known as NutraSweet
  • monosodium glutamate (MSG) found in commercially processed foods such as stocks, sauces, chips, dips, and processed meats
  • phenylethylamine found in chocolate
  • phosphates found in beverages, oils, baked goods, soft drinks, and fruit products
  • tyramine found in aged cheese and Chianti
  • xanthines from caffeine

Aspartame has been shown to block the synthesis of serotonin. These additives can also cause some individuals to experience mania, shortened attention span, distractibility, and impaired problem-solving ability. Phosphates are another group of additives used in processed foods that should be avoided. They have been associated with hyperactivity in certain children whose behavioral problems diminished when the phosphates were removed from their diets.

#5 BAD FOOD = Caffeine

Many recovering addicts turn to caffeine when trying to recover from drugs and alcohol. Unfortunately, caffeine is just another type of drug that alters your chemical balance. It pumps adrenaline into the bloodstream which temporarily provides energy. Then, the adrenaline rush dumps stored sugar into the bloodstream which triggers an outpouring of insulin. Caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands, leading eventually to adrenal exhaustion and symptoms like:

  • fatigue
  • lack of physical endurance and stamina
  • impaired ability to deal with stress
  • depressed immune systems
  • allergic reactions
  • weight gain
  • low blood pressure
  • dizziness
  • lightheadedness
  • blacking out when standing up

Caffeine also stimulates the liver to release more sugar in the blood stream and further stresses the body’s delicate sugar-regulating mechanism. It also impairs calcium absorption.

We understand it may be hard to kick the caffeine addiction, but you should start slowly. For example, you may want to begin by cutting your caffeine intake in half each week until you no longer need it. Also, eat protein-based meals with natural carbohydrates and good fats to keep your blood sugar stable and reduce your craving for sugar and caffeine.

Other nutrition and recovery strategies

A person coping with addiction is more likely to confuse hunger for a drug craving. This is why regular meals are important. Drug and alcohol addiction causes a person to forget what it is like to be hungry. So, if you crave your drug-of-choice… check in and see what kinds of foods you are eating and how often.

During recovery from substance use, dehydration is also common. That’s why it is important to get enough fluids during and in between meals. Water is an excellent beverage often overlooked. Some experts recommend drinking 8 cups of water per day. Check in with your doctor or addiction specialist for an individual guideline.

These additional tips can help improve the odds of a lasting and healthy recovery:

TIP 1: Eat nutritious meals and snacks.
TIP 2: Eat healthy meals and snacks and avoid caloric foods with low nutrition, such as sweets.
TIP 3: Get 20-40 minutes of vigorous physical activity per day.
TIP 4: Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
TIP 5: Avoid caffeine and stop smoking, if possible.
TIP 6: Seek help from counselors or support groups on a regular basis.
TIP 7: Take vitamin and mineral supplements if recommended by the health care provider.

Questions about what to eat?

Do you still have questions about what food is proper for you while recovering from addiction? Please leave them here. We are happy to help answer your questions personally and promptly. If we do not know the answer to your particular question, we will refer you to someone who does.

Reference Sources: Many Hands Sustainability Center: Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
MedlinePlus: Diet and substance use recovery
NCHPAD: Food and Your Mood: Nutrition and Mental Health
University of Maryland: Diet and substance use recovery
About the author
Lee Weber is a published author, medical writer, and woman in long-term recovery from addiction. Her latest book, The Definitive Guide to Addiction Interventions is set to reach university bookstores in early 2019.
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