Sober living isn’t just about maintaining your sobriety; it’s about making positive changes that benefit every area of your life, too. By focusing on taking care of ourselves, we reduce the potential risk of triggers like illness, fatigue, and even stress. Getting enough rest and rejuvenation is one of the most important facets of a healthy recovery plan, but so, too, is giving our bodies the right fuel – not substances, but food.
What makes food such a sensitive topic in recovery is the fact that cross-addictions and eating disorders are frequently diagnosed right alongside drug or alcohol addictions. For those of us who suffer from disordered eating, getting a handle on bad eating habits can be particularly challenging, but everyone struggles with the occasional desire to indulge now and again.
Spotting potential problem areas like the following will help you keep your sweet tooth, salt cravings, or snacking under control, even when stress levels get high.
Eating Only Once Per Day
Attending an AA meeting at 7 a.m, and another one at 12:00 p.m. Maybe a meeting at 7 p.m. for good measure? Not a bad idea, especially if you’re fresh in recovery and still finding your stride. Finding time to eat in all that? Well…sometimes it can be left aside, especially if they’re serving donuts at the meeting. Or maybe you’re working long shifts and having trouble finding time to squeeze in a meal. Suddenly, you realize it’s 8 p.m. and you haven’t eaten once yet today.
Next comes the inevitable binge; you end up eating way more than you would at a normal meal because you haven’t eaten. You end up feeling full, bloated, and just overall sluggish all the next day.
This is a common scenario not just for people in recovery, but for plenty of Americans in general. Busy lives lead us to cram eating time into the end of our day, forcing our bodies to essentially starve and then binge. Our bodies go into starvation mode, taking the extensive time without food as inaccessibility, and can often begin packing on the pounds to protect us.
Skip the once-a-day meal and spend Sundays preparing 6 small, healthy meals each day instead. Your meals don’t have to be complex; a bowl of granola with yogurt and an orange is a fine breakfast, while a salad is an excellent lunch. Have healthy snacks like bean crackers and hummus or fresh fruit available and remind yourself to eat every few hours. It’ll curb snack attacks and keep you fueled properly without extra stress.
The Sugar Trap
If you’ve heard people talk about sugar like it’s a drug, you aren’t alone. There’s a significant amount of evidence to show that you can indeed become addicted to sugar itself, especially if you overindulge (either intentionally or unintentionally).
The problem lies in the fact that the delicious sweetener we all love so much triggers the same areas of the brain that get triggered in addiction. A rush of dopamine and serotonin and a quick burst of energy can improve your mood after you ingest a sweet treat, but the crash very quickly follows.
Think you’re avoiding sugar because you don’t add it to your food? Think again. A single 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola can contain as much as 35 grams or 10 tablespoons of sugar – that’s well over the World Health Organization’s recommended intake of 25 grams. Even your beloved Doritos contain sugar (as well as fat and salt).
But before you go to the cupboard and toss the baby out with the bathwater, understand that the occasional snack isn’t the problem. There’s really no such thing as an “illegal food” or “clean eating;” both rely on decades-old theories that make food evil or good, which simply isn’t rational or realistic. A sweet treat – even if it happens to be a can of coke or slice of cheesecake – is a-okay. Making sugar “illegal” is only likely to make you rebel and indulge more in the end.
Just be sure to moderate your intake; a couple of rewards a week is more than enough.
Not Staying Hydrated
This is easily one of the most common bad eating habits people develop. Not drinking enough fluids causes dehydration (okay, that’s a bit obvious, but hang in there), and dehydration can trick your body into thinking it’s hungry, tired, anxious, irritable, or even outright angry. In response, you run for the cupboard to grab a snack – but you’re hungry just an hour later, and with good reason.
The problem isn’t that your body needs fuel; it’s that you need more fluids in order to generate the energy needed to live and function correctly.
Confusing thirst for hunger is a well-documented phenomenon. Research shows that what you’re usually experiencing is actually a somewhat advanced case of dehydration. By the time your body triggers dizziness, food cravings, or the irritable “hangry” feeling that comes along with not having eaten in awhile, you’ve already reached a potentially dangerous stage.
Contrary to popular belief, there’s no one amount of water that’s right for every person to drink. An extremely active person might need a glass of water an hour, while someone sedentary could do fine with two or three over the course of the day. Instead of tracking your intake to the letter, make drinking water more desirable. A nice, cold steel thermos flavored with some fruit kept by your side will encourage you to hydrate throughout the day.
This one isn’t just a bad habit, it’s potentially dangerous and can lead to disordered eating, too. Fad diets are a dime a dozen on the Internet – Paleo, South Beach, Atkins, Fruitarian, the Grapefruit Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the…Tapeworm Diet?!
I don’t know about you, but that last one (and maybe the one before it) sounds pretty horrifying.
Fad diets like these are unfortunately real. Some, like the Atkins diet, are at least somewhat based in sensible science, while others, like the tapeworm diet, are flat-out dangerous and should probably be illegal in all areas if they aren’t already. All, unfortunately, tend to put your body through a cycle of starvation that never really sticks, so you bounce back once you finish the diet and gain even more weight than you’ve lost.
As a general rule of thumb, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Any diet that looks suitable will have you change not only your habits but your entire lifestyle, too – permanently and for the better. If you’re having difficulty with losing weight, gaining weight, or maintaining your diet in recovery, the best thing you can do for yourself is visit your physician. Ask for a referral to a dietician; these qualified nutrition specialists can help you to re-evaluate what you eat so that you can make real, long-term changes that finally stick.
Not Eating (Healthy) Fats
The first decade of the 00’s was filled with horror stories about fat and cholesterol. Doctors warned that if you ate too much, you were certain to find yourself with heart disease, high blood pressure, and an extra tire around the middle. Fat became the new butter – demonized and turned into something to be avoided at all costs.
While too much of the wrong fat is certainly still a problem, we know now that too little of the right fat can be just as bad. Fat is what provides our body with energy and provides our brain with omega-3 and omega-6. Both are necessary for good health. Without fat, we simply couldn’t survive.
So what’s the difference between a healthy fat and a bad fat? Avoid foods that contain trans fats, saturated fats, and hydrogenated oils – commonly found in French fries, burgers, and cooking oil. Instead, aim for monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and medium-chain triglyceride fats. That includes avocados, coconut oil, and oily fish like salmon.
Using margarine to cut the fat? Don’t bother; research shows that real butter is much healthier for you in moderated amounts.
Above all else, healthy eating means improving your overall relationship to food and its role within your life. If you’re struggling, understand that you don’t have to go it alone. Disordered eating occurs on a spectrum and can be as simple as feeling anxiety when eating certain foods or as complex as full-blown anorexia nervosa, and often gets overlooked. If you’ve made a concentrated effort to cut down on bad habits, but still can’t quite get your grip, speak with your doctor and see what he has to recommend. Your health is worth it!