A famous Hippocrates quote reads, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” It highlights the necessity of a good diet for healing from any illness, be it addiction or something else altogether. Although food can never truly replace medicine completely, getting the right nutrients can significantly impact how quickly and easily you heal while in recovery.
That’s where medical nutrition therapy, often simply referred to as MNT, comes in. It focuses on balancing the needs of the individual with this food guide for optimal nutrition. Nearly all detoxes and in-patient treatment centers provide this type of therapy in one form or another because proper nutrition is a vital part of getting and staying well. Whether you’re heading to your first program or you’ve been in recovery for years, you can borrow tips from this approach to speed and support your body in healing long into the future.
Understanding How Addiction Impacts Nutrition
Before we can discuss exactly how nutrition can help someone in recovery (from any illness, not just addiction), we need to understand how and why and how our addictions change our nutritional status. Firstly, when we’re in the depths of an addiction, remembering to eat healthy, regular meals and stay hydrated can become difficult or even downright impossible.
Some substances, like alcohol or benzodiazepines, may actually exacerbate hunger and thus, cause indiscriminate snacking. Alcohol also contains calories, and may contribute up to as much as 50 percent of the daily calories for someone who is actively binging. Add to this the fact that alcohol can seem like a better purchase than healthy food when in the midst of a binge and you have a recipe for problems.
Other substances, like opiates, can cause extreme sedation and then extreme withdrawal, both of which can impact nutritional status. Opiate withdrawal often produces serious, potentially life-threatening vomiting and diarrhea that can unbalance electrolytes and cause conditions like hypokalemia (low potassium in the blood). Stimulants like methamphetamine also cause the body to burn through calories more quickly, in addition to reducing appetite, meaning that you’re running at a constant deficit when using.
Basic Nutrients 101
Do you understand exactly what nutrients you need to eat each day for optimal health? Even if you do, do you know exactly how much you’re supposed to ingest? If not, you’re not alone. Studies have shown that Americans struggle with understanding healthy eating in the first place. And if you don’t eat a healthy, balanced diet, your body and mind will suffer – usually beginning with low energy, poor mood, and a struggling immune system.
Think of good nutrition like high-quality fuel for a top-quality sports car; put cheaper fuel in it and it will run, but you risk the engine imploding or the fuel lines decaying, and you aren’t likely to get full performance.
Even if you believe you already understand healthy eating, it may benefit you to review the Food Guide Pyramid published by the USDA. This gives a top-down overview of everything the average American should be ingesting on a daily basis. That means:
- 2-3 servings of milk, yogurt, or cheese.
- 2-3 servings of meat, beans, eggs, or other proteins.
- 3-5 servings of vegetables, like cucumber or spinach.
- 2-4 servings of fruit, like oranges and apples.
- 6-11 servings of bread, rice, pasta, and other grains.
Although the Food Guide Pyramid is an excellent place to start, it’s important to remember that your individual situation may necessitate changes to it. If you’re not sure, this is an excellent time to forge a new relationship with a nutritionist.
Some foods are more important for the recovering body than others; for example, studies show that ingesting a few servings of protein spaced throughout the day during the healing process may help you to heal more quickly. Likewise, loading up on green leafy vegetables like spinach or arugula gives your body a blast of vitamin E, potassium, calcium, and iron – all of which can aid your body in producing energy and improving mood.
Others, like salmon, contain vital amino acids (healthy fats) like omega 3, 6, and 9. These substances not only improve energy, but mental clarity, too. Still others, like blueberries, contain vital antioxidants like vitamin C – a substance that helps your kidneys, liver, and immune system defend and repair from harm.
Avocado and lentils, both a very healthy choice, contain folic acid and B-vitamins – both of which help the body to produce serotonin more effectively. Fish like mackerel contains high levels of vitamin B12 specifically, a substance that women over the age of 40 and those recovering from illness may be deficient in.
Even the spices we eat can sometimes aid in how we feel in recovery. Turmeric, for example, sourced from the root of a perennial plant, gives curry its beautiful yellow shade and may reduce inflammation. Coriander, also commonly found in Indian foods, may even help to reduce and lessen digestive discomfort.
Avoiding the Sugar Trap
Oh, sweet sugar…how we love thee…probably because you act on the same reward centers in the brain that our addiction triggers. The sugar trap is enough of a nutritional pitfall in recovery that it bears an entire discussion point.
Think of it this way; you ingest sugar, your mood rises and you are, in fact, experiencing a mild but very effective stimulant high. Research shows that sugar can be addictive all on its own, and that’s an easy trap to fall into when we’re detoxing or coming off of our drug of choice. Turning to comfort foods is both an addiction issue and a societal norm, so it’s much easier to justify a few Little Debbie cakes here, a few candies there. Just as it was with our drug of choice, it can become a habit that helps us avoid properly moderating our moods and emotions. Sugar is fine once in awhile; it’s a problem when you’re indulging rather than getting to the root of the problem.
The easiest way to cut back on your sugar levels is simply to skip the processed treats. Indulge in fruits like apples, oranges, and grapefruits instead, but be sure to moderate your intake. While they do still contain sugar, their sugars tend to be more stable and are less prone to causing a crash a few hours later.
If you’re a chocolate junkie, skip the milk chocolate and try a lower-sugar dark chocolate mini chips sprinkled over healthy granola. Aim for chocolates with 70 percent cocoa or more instead of sweeter versions.
More importantly, pay attention to your mood when those sweetness cravings hit; are you sad? Angry? Upset? Try to identify the root of those feelings before you give up and indulge. If you’re eating to assuage your feelings, you’re doing the same thing you were doing with your drug of choice.
Deciding to enter recovery is a big decision that takes a tremendous amount of courage. Even though it can seem difficult at first, there is a great deal of hope and support available to help you get there. Whether you’re 20 years into recovery or just 20 minutes, making connections with those who can guide you towards a healthier lifestyle (nutrition included) will give you the tools you need to be successful long-term.