As researchers learn more about human health, it’s becoming increasingly clear that customizing a person’s nutrition in recovery is essential to their success. Holistic approaches that address the whole patient work better than treatments that focus on superficial symptoms while leaving underlying problems unaddressed. This rule doesn’t only apply to physical illnesses — it’s also preferable for mental health matters, such as addiction.
One aspect of holistic health is nutrition. Why is nutrition important in recovery? Every substance you put in your body affects your chemistry, including food. The right approach can accelerate your efforts and help you heal from addiction’s ravages.
What should you know if you’re on the path to healing or know someone who is?
Table of Contents
Nutrition is vital in recovery for several reasons. Some of them are physical, while others are primarily mental. However, keep in mind you can’t truly divorce the two — your brain is a part of your body, after all. Here are the benefits of nutrition in recovery.
Alcohol can lead you to make poor food choices while inebriated. Some people overindulge in unhealthy, deep-fried bar foods, while others skip meals to achieve a faster buzz. It’s much easier to eat junk food after alcohol makes the world feel more fuzzy and relaxed.
Even though the food tastes great, the saturated fats and intense carbohydrate levels cause your body to swing through rising and plummeting blood sugar spikes. You’ll pack extra weight while influencing things like the cholesterol in your bloodstream and liver.
Additionally, alcohol affects how your body absorbs, stores, and metabolizes certain nutrients. If you have a long-term alcohol addiction, you often lack B vitamins like folate, vitamin B6 and thiamine. Deficiencies in these substances cause decreases in energy levels and mood changes that make it more challenging to stick to your recovery goals.
It can also impair your immune system, making you prone to infections that keep you out of needed support sessions. If you’re always sick, you’re also less likely to spend time and energy preparing healthy meals. You’ll reach for comfort foods to make yourself feel better, which may be the same things you ate while inebriated.
Remaining sober may be the first time you can address nutrition deficiencies long-term. Your body will thrive in sobriety and struggle less if you follow a recovery plan that includes a nutritionally improved diet.
Helps Your Body Repair Itself
Drugs and alcohol can do considerable damage to your system, but fortunately, you can reverse much of the harm if you give your body the raw materials it needs — namely, nutrients. For example, your liver has the tremendous ability to renew itself.
You can help it by eating plenty of foods rich in anthocyanins — the stuff that gives berries their deep red and blue colors. Studies have revealed blueberries increase antioxidant capability, helping the liver flush out damaging free radicals.
Proper nutrition can also heal your brain and help your neurotransmitters return to normal. Substance abuse causes alterations in these chemicals and their receptors that can take considerable time to recover. The good news is you can regain most — although not all — of your previous capacity and repair much of the damage.
If you’re wondering where you should start healing your body with better dietary choices, talk with your primary care physician, nutritionist, and recovery specialist. They’ll work together to formulate the best diet for your health needs and history. You won’t waste time guessing at the grocery store or buying foods you don’t need.
Influences Your Mood and Behavior
Did you know food influences your mood? Your feelings also affect your behavior, making it easier for you to stick to your sobriety goals when you nurture them with proper nutrition.
It’s easier to maintain a positive mood when you aren’t hungry or exhausted from falling blood sugar levels. You could reach for snacks whenever you experience these moments, but it’s better to prevent them by formulating a diet that keeps you nutritionally sustained and satisfied.
Healthy food choices that lead to three meals each day and frequent snacks also make it easier to cope with existing mental health conditions. For example, people with magnesium deficiency often experience worsening depression. Fortunately, addressing this issue often leads to rapid relief — and a supplement is far healthier than trying to self-medicate a blue mood with alcohol or drugs. You can also find this nutrient in abundance in most nuts and seeds.
Encourages New Self-Care Habits
How do addictions start? While the specifics differ from person to person, most people begin using substances in an attempt to feel better. Unfortunately, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol causes more trouble than it solves as people damage their relationships and careers.
Self-medicating can also destroy your physical health. Alongside physical conditions like heart disease, you could cause nutritional gaps in your daily life due to poor dietary choices. Your addiction may have also kept you from affording the foods you needed or having the ability to drive to the grocery store for yourself.
Taking care of your nutritional needs is a fabulous way to encourage positive self-care while mending your body. Cooking yourself a healthy comfort meal is a far better response to a rough day or triggering event than dulling your emotions through artificial means.
You’ll also take a self-care view of your dietary choices. Instead of reaching for junk food to comfort yourself, you’ll want to support your body with healthier options that are more satisfying. Prioritizing your well-being as an act of love makes every self-care effort much easier. You’ll learn to instinctually make better choices, which transforms your recovery experience into one that’s much more enjoyable and sustainable.
The best news is you don’t have to follow a specific diet to use nutrition in recovery. Heeding the tips below will do the trick while allowing you the freedom to design a menu you enjoy.
Reduce Your Reliance on White Flour
One easy rule to remember — take it easy on white, especially during recovery. Doctors suggest sugar and all-purpose flour have similar addictive properties to cocaine and heroin. Both activate your brain’s dopamine reward system — don’t make the mistake of swapping one substance for another.
Although sugar and white flour may seem relatively innocuous compared to drugs, they carry considerable health risks. For example, they sharply elevate your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes — a condition that can require lifelong medical care. This need can create additional stress if addiction affects your employment and you don’t have access to health insurance. Too much pressure increases the chances of a relapse.
Instead, look for alternatives to white sugar and flour. Many are available outside of costly health food stores because people without addictions are making the same dietary swaps for other health reasons.
You could use stevia or a stevia-erythritol blend to sweeten beverages and desserts without sugar. Your blood sugar will remain stable and your body will enjoy an all-natural source of sweetness.
It’s also easy to swap flour with almond flour, coconut flour or a mix of both. You’ll have to find comparable recipes to find the right substitution amounts, but you’ll still get to make foods like pancakes and bread without impacting your physical health.
Eat the Rainbow
How do you know you’re getting all the nutrients your body needs to recover from addiction? Mother Nature provided a handy color code. Different plant hues correspond to varying nutritional profiles, so strive to get at least three different shades on your plate at each meal.
Picture yourself making beef stew for dinner. The bite-sized pieces of beef provide the brown in your dietary rainbow, while sliced carrots, onions, and celery add orange, white, and green. You could pair your stew with sweet potatoes for an extra orange shade that doesn’t cause the same blood sugar spikes as russet potatoes. Stew also goes well with salads, roasted broccoli, or steamed veggies.
It’s also easier to eat the rainbow by meal prepping. Decide which meals and snacks you’ll eat throughout the week by writing your ideas in a planner or custom spreadsheet. You’ll create a grocery list based on a week’s worth of food and know exactly which purchases will make your new diet consistently colorful.
Choose Healthy Fats
Although the U.S. banned trans fats, they still lurk in some packaged goods. Furthermore, they can form during deep frying, so stay away from fast food and baked goods made with shortening.
Olive oil is a healthier alternative that’s rich in polyphenols that support cardiovascular health. Your heart can take a beating from addiction, so learning about healthy fats and measuring your intake is an important step in figuring out your nutrition in recovery. Other good fats come from sources like eggs, avocados, fish, cheese, and dark chocolate.
Talk with a nutritionist if you’re unsure about the difference between healthy and saturated fats. They’ll explain where you can find both and how they affect your body differently.
Opt for Lean Proteins
There’s nothing wrong with the occasional steak or burger. However, the World Health Organization considers processed meat a carcinogen and red meat a probable one. Therefore, eliminate your reliance on sandwich meats, other than plain, roasted varieties with no nitrates, and choose lean proteins like fish more often.
You could also find protein in sources like legumes, tofu, yogurt, and cottage cheese. They’re excellent resources to reduce how much red meat you eat or start a vegetarian diet if you decide that’s the right step for your recovery journey.
Use Herbs Liberally
Herbs have oodles of health benefits and flavor your food without excess salt. High blood pressure is exacerbated by too much salt blood pressure. However, spices like garlic powder, onion powder, basil, parsley, and chili powder add a safe variety of flavors to any type of meal. Stock your pantry so you’re always ready to make tasty food without salt.
Herb-based beverages like chamomile and lavender tea can also relax you — try a cup to unwind at day’s end instead of wine. Herbal tea also contains antioxidants that help repair the damage caused by addiction by flushing harmful free radicals out of your system. You’ll reduce your stress and heal your body on a cellular level just by enjoying a cup of evening tea with your sugar-free sweetener of choice.
Visit Your Farmers Market
Did you know fruits and vegetables start to lose nutrients just days after harvest? Those shipped long distances to your grocery store might not be as nourishing as you think. Instead, visit your farmers market — you’ll find organic goods for far less than in traditional stores. They come from nearby farms, keeping them nutrient-rich.
It’s also OK if you can’t afford whole-veggie prices or don’t have the time to visit a farmers market in addition to the grocery store. Frozen vegetables work when you need to make different choices to align with your schedule and budget. They’re frozen right after harvest, so you’ll get a whole nutritional profile for a fraction of the cost.
If your addiction diet consisted of burgers, fries, and bar peanuts, add some variety to your meal plan. Some international cuisines offer impressive health benefits. For example, Indian curries rich in turmeric have anti-inflammatory properties that can help ease chronic pain, which is helpful if you used drugs or alcohol to dull the ache.
You’ve heard the advice a million times, but that’s because it matters — staying hydrated is a vital part of nutrition in recovery. Without adequate water, it’s harder for your kidneys to do their job of flushing out toxins, so get a reusable bottle. Use an app or set a timer to remind you to sip once every 30 minutes or so if you tend to forget.
If you’re not a fan of plain water, you can try sugar-free sparkling brands at your grocery store. Numerous flavors are available. You can swap caffeinated beverages and sugary sodas for sparkling waters that support your health much more effectively without losing the flavors you love.
Why is nutrition important in recovery? A holistic approach often works best for healing because it goes beyond treating surface symptoms to address underlying causes of distress. One factor that could make it more challenging to overcome addiction is malnutrition and its effects.
Use the above tips to use nutrition in recovery and accelerate your healing process effectively. It’s a difficult journey, but fueling your body with the right stuff will make your path easier to walk.
I am Dr. Yenny Angela, a medical graduate from Hannover Medical School. I have expertise in emergency medicine and care for patients with multiple injuries. Also, I am a researcher always on the lookout for new scientific findings. I also have a publication on Researchgate.com.