May 21, 2018

Healthy Food Choices for People in Recovery

Written by Alex Thompson

Early recovery from substance use disorders can be uncomfortable and be challenging for many. Post-acute withdrawal combined with symptoms of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and low energy and mood can often lead recovering addicts to relapse. So what weapons do people in early recovery have at their disposal to lessen the impact of these symptoms and improve their overall feelings of well-being and chances of recovery? We know group therapy, exercise and activity can do much to improve these symptoms, but what about diet?

Most of us in recovery can admit we did not do a great job of eating a consistent or healthy diet during our addiction. It is common for many to enter treatment severely malnourished and underweight. For others, heavy substance use coupled with inactivity may have led to weight gain and loss of muscle mass. Either way, proper nutrition and eating at regular intervals fell by the wayside while we were in the depths of our addictions. Making positive changes to your diet and eating patterns is a simple, important and direct tool you have to impact the way feel.

High-Quality Fuel – Leafy Greens, Olive Oil, Nuts, Lean Meats
While there are no special foods or magic bullet for individuals in recovery to immediately cure their addictions, there is evidence that eating wholesome, nutritious foods and making better food choices can impact mental health, feelings of well-being and potentially improve your chances of recovery. In particular, research has shown the Mediterranean Diet can help to reduce the development of depression. The Mediterranean Diet consists of nutrient-dense foods such as nuts, leafy green vegetables, whole grains and cereals, fruits, lean meats such as fish and poultry, and fats such as vegetable and plant oils. One study found that using a Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of developing depression by 25-35% when compared with a traditional Western Diet (which contains an abundance of high sugar, highly processed foods and an abundance of fatty red meats). Your brain and your body are like a high-performance vehicle, they need fuel to run at an optimum level. Eating sufficient amounts of nutrient dense food such as fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats is the equivalent of putting high-quality gasoline in your vehicle, it will run better and more reliably. Unfortunately, putting low-quality fuel in your system can often have the reverse effect. Consuming poor food choices like highly processed, high sugar, low nutrient foods, the kind you typically find at a local fast food drive-thru, can often leave you feeling sluggish, weak, low energy, and moody.

Follow Your Gut – Probiotics 
What you eat can directly impact how you feel via neurotransmitters. Serotonin, a chemical which helps regulate mood, appetite, and the sleep/wake cycle is actually produced in the gut. In fact, over 90% of this vital brain chemical is produced by microbes in the gut, your “good” bacteria. The bacteria in your gut play a vital role in your health, improving absorption of nutrients, protecting against inflammation, and activating the neural pathways that travel from the gut to the brain, lending a whole new meaning to the phrase “trust your gut”. Keeping these good bacteria healthy and fed with nutritious food and a probiotic (supplement of good bacteria) can potentially help newly recovering individuals. Studies have shown that probiotics may reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, improve attitude and feelings of well-being when compared with those that did not take a probiotic.

Intuitive Eating
For many of us in recovery, weight gain, body image, and self-esteem are interconnected. Often times, our relationship with food and eating are sources of guilt and shame and are closely tied to our other addictions. If this is the case, the initial weight gain that often accompanies new sobriety may bring about stress and anxiety. Ultimately, our egos, self-image, and recovery may be negatively impacted. Intuitive Eating helps those that suffer from disordered eating patterns or who have had bad relationships with food and dieting in the past, repair the interconnection of food, mind, and body. Intuitive Eating proposes that we shouldn’t think of foods in “bad” or “good” terms, but that we should listen to our bodies and stay mindful of its signals. Some of the core principles include: honoring your hunger, rejecting diet mentality, feeling your fullness, respecting your body’s signals, and learning to cope with your emotions without using food. Many of these same principles (mindfulness, coping skills, self-care, positive self-talk) are vital tools for people in early recovery to learn and use. In addition to this, following Intuitive Eating is easy and fun! We as addicts can often be described as “all or nothing” kinds of people. Whatever we are doing, we dive into head first and full bore. Sometimes this a good thing, like when immersing oneself in recovery or beginning a new exercise program. But with restrictive eating patterns, denying certain foods because they are “bad” can sometimes lead to binges and cycles of guilt and shame, mimicking much of the same behavior we may have found ourselves doing during addiction. Intuitive Eating proposes that if you want that slice of pizza, then have a slice. If you want another slice, have another. By removing the restrictive label from these foods it takes away their power and you are less likely to spiral into a binge. It becomes much easier to practice self-control and walk away from unhealthy eating patterns when you allow yourself to indulge in foods you enjoy without feeling bad or guilty about it.

Take Home Message
What you put in your body affects how you feel. This is true for more than just drugs and alcohol, food can have a large impact on how good we feel physically, as well as how we feel mentally and emotionally. For those of us in early recovery, eating sufficient quantities of nutrient dense, vitamin-rich foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, whole grains and cereals and lean meats can help to promote overall feelings of well being and reduce some of the negative side effects that come from withdrawal and abstinence from substances. Listen to your appetite, allow yourself to fill full and meet the hunger and food cravings of your body without judgment and guilt.  Avoid labeling food as good or bad and try to think of your meals more as opportunities to make better health choices. Following your body’s natural signals and eating at regular intervals will help you get on your way to feeling well and improve your chances and quality of recovery.

Wellness Coordinator St Christopher's Addiction Wellness Center

Travis Weisbrod
ACE Personal Trainer
Wellness Coordinator
St. Christopher’s Addiction Wellness Center

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