The Need for Proper Nutrition
While recovery from substance abuse is usually focused primarily on keeping drugs out of one’s body, an often-underrated component of successfully staying in recovery is choosing proper nutrition. The foods we eat impact how we feel and how we feel impacts our ability to make good choices overall.
Psychology Today paints a picture of what often happens when a person enters treatment for substance abuse, “The patient presents to an addiction treatment center…15 pounds underweight. The primary source of dopamine stimulation (drugs) is gone and the anhedonia sets in. Post detoxification we can predict an increase in substance-seeking behavior, predictable caffeine, nicotine, and sugar. The patient has progressed to coffee with creamer and sugar several times per day in addition to energy drinks…Highly palatable food may feel like the sole source of pleasure that is left, yet there is no interest in cooking, particularly since there is a chef to prepare delicious meals such as tacos, spaghetti and meatballs, and teriyaki chicken.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t a pattern of choices that helps a person in recovery to stay on track. Following acute detox, Psychology Today’s article suggests that people fighting addiction be given education, preferably from a registered nutritionist/dietician, about how to make proper nutritional choices and that the food provided at the treatment center follow the guidance of a registered dietician/nutritionist.
Consider the following suggestions for a healthy, post-addiction diet:
- Breakfast should be required.
- Drink a minimum of 2 liters water every day.
- Enjoy fruits or vegetables with every meal and raw vegetables at least once per day.
- Consume beans, nuts, or seeds with every meal or snack.
What Not to Eat
Foods to avoid include:
- Desserts more than two nights per week
- Fried foods (including frozen foods previously fried)
- Foods that cannot be classified into the food group system
- Energy drinks
- Other sweetened beverages
- Artificial sweeteners (or other “diet foods”)
- Refined grains (whole grains only)
U.S. News recently published a guide to help people in addiction recovery to select foods that support a recovery lifestyle. Their top advice is to avoid heavily processed or fast foods. Processed foods and fast foods tend to contain a lot of fat, sugar, and sodium and often have less fiber, so they do not keep a person feeling full for as long. They will feel hungry sooner than if they had eaten lean protein, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
Foods that Support Recovery
The U.S. News guide has a sample meal plan and also specifically recommends these foods to address the special dietary needs encountered by people newly in recovery:
Foods that Contain Tyrosine
Tyrosine is an amino acid that triggers the release of dopamine, which can run low in early recovery. Low dopamine levels can mean low energy and motivation, apathy, a depressed mood, and intense substance cravings.
- Sunflower seeds
- Lean beef
- Whole grains
Foods Rich in L-glutamine
L-glutamine can help reduce sugar cravings, which can be common during early recovery. Sugar consumption has been linked to higher rates of anxiety, depression, and inflammation—all of which can sabotage sobriety.
- Dark, leafy greens like kale, spinach, and parsley
- Brussels sprouts
- Dairy products
Antioxidants rebuild immune systems and can help cleanse the body of harmful substances during detox and withdrawal.
Foods that Boost GABA Levels
GABA is a neurotransmitter that that can help reduce anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia—all very common symptoms of withdrawal. It can help people feel calmer and more relaxed too.
- Kefir (a fermented yogurt-like drink)
- Cherry tomatoes
Foods that Offer Tryptophan
Tryptophan triggers the release of serotonin, a “feel good” chemical in the brain.
- Tuna fish
- Oat bran
Livestrong.com offers a list of foods especially good for people recovering from alcohol addiction. There is considerable overlap between the two lists, but with some additional tips:
- Recovering alcoholics may have a decreased appetite in the beginning, but tend to overeat when regular eating habits return. Low-fat foods help them feel better and improve moods to reduce the risk of relapse.
- Lean beef, skinless poultry, and fish lessen fat intake.
- Low-fat or fat-free dairy foods can replace whole-milk products.
- Whole grains are better than refined grains, such as white bread or white flour. Fiber-rich whole grains also provide a feeling of fullness while digesting smoothly.
- Alcoholics may crave sweets during recovery and if indulging (in moderation) helps them stay in recovery, then some sweets are to be allowed. Focus on low-fat sweets along with fruits and vegetables.
- Rehydrate with water, fruit juices, and skim or low-fat milk. All of these can help the detox process.
- Recovering alcoholics may want coffee or soft drinks, but should limit intake to avoid insomnia caused by too much caffeine.
Preventing Cross Addiction
By beginning a healthy diet as soon as possible, a person recovering from any form of substance abuse reduces their risk of forming a cross addiction with food. Cross addiction, sometimes called substitute addiction, is a phenomenon where a person essentially stops using one addictive substance only to replace it with something else. This can happen with another drug, gambling, food, or anything else to which a person can become addicted.
Seek Comprehensive Care at Safe Harbor Recovery Center
Safe Harbor Recovery Center recognizes that people are more than just their addiction. Our drug and alcohol treatment programs treat clients as whole and complicated beings with unique needs. We are happy to assist with all aspects of the recovery process, including the importance of healthy decision making around nutrition.