Addiction recovery is hard as it is – you’re fighting your cravings, you’re starting anew with new people and broken relationships, and you’re struggling to cope with living a normal life with all of life’s challenges and stresses without your usual coping mechanism.
Overeating is, thus, common among early recovery patients. Overeating produces a similar effect in the brain as addiction does, producing feelings of euphoria – and an eventual sugar crash. Akin to replacing one addiction with another unwittingly, a lot of the excessive weight gain in early recovery comes from the struggles of learning what it means to be healthy again after months or years of addiction.
Not all weight gain after addiction is unhealthy, of course. Some weight gain is almost always to be expected, due to the appetite-reducing nature of most drugs. The main exception to the case is alcohol consumption, which contributes excessive calories of no value, typically resulting in weight loss during recovery.
You Might Have Forgotten How to Eat
It may sound ridiculous, but after months or years in addiction, getting used to cooking healthy food for yourself can be challenging. You may never have cooked before, or you may have gotten used to eating in a way: take-out, junk food, and other low-effort meals that save as much time as possible.
Because of this, switching to sobriety may cause unexpected weight gain in those with a history of appetite-reducing drugs (opiates, primarily) and stimulants. Drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine abnormally increase your metabolism and degrade your body, leading to a higher rate of calorie burn and a lower bioavailability of nutrients. Yes, drugs make you lose weight – therefore some eating disorders have become gateways to drug addictions, as heroin and meth (in “low dosages”) make for an “efficient” way to control the appetite and artificially boost the body’s metabolism.
Getting used to eating real food again, and preparing real meals again while having a normal metabolism and the appetite of a healthy person (and in some cases, a little more), can take a while. It can also take your palate a while to adjust, and it’ll take a little longer for your body to get used to what it means to eat healthy portions – not too much, and not too little.
Coupling Sobriety With Healthy Living
The leading reason for weight gain in drug recovery is that the body is finally healthy enough to have a normal relationship with food. The leading reason for excessive weight gain in drug recovery, however, is that you’re eating too much. While there are nuances to nutrition and the way it works – think about fat storage and sugar storage, hormone levels, metabolism increases through muscle growth, regular coffee consumption and exercise, etc. – the general rule for losing or gaining weight is calories in and calories out.
Your body has a basal metabolic rate, a certain rate at which it burns calories daily based on your total bodyweight, age, height, gender and physical activity level. Add onto that whatever extra activity you do – some walking, swimming, training – and then comes all the food you eat. Most people don’t count their calories, but they may be surprised to find out just how much calories they’re eating. If you eat more than you burn, the body stores it as fat (or muscle, if you’re adequately training).
In sobriety, it’s often assumed that total abstinence means quitting cigarettes, medication and alcohol as well as whatever else you might have been consuming. Yet food can be a terrible, terrible thing for your body and your mind if not treated with the proper respect and knowledge. Many addicts are prone to fast foods and comfort foods during addiction, and that habit sticks in recovery. You may crave more palatable (i.e. sweeter) foods with close to zero prep time, from store-bought cookies to McDonalds. Breaking that habit and instead eating a healthier diet will not only improve your overall health – it’ll have a positive effect on your drug recovery.
Recovery is a mental battle as much as it is a physical battle. You’re fighting the cravings, you’re looking for reasons not to use again, and you’re going through your day finding ways to divert and release pent up frustration without reverting to old habits. A healthy lifestyle has all the answers you need to that collection of issues. Through a balanced diet of healthy fat, complex carbs and varied protein sources, you’ll not only build a better body but fuel a healthier brain. Proper eating is associated with lower risk for mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
Meanwhile, regular exercise won’t just keep you fit, but it can help reconstruct drug-damaged parts of the brain, and keep your mind active in advanced age.
Avoid Stress Eating
Stress eating is a coping mechanism, or form of stress management, utilizing food as an outlet. Because food – particularly food we like – makes us feel good and triggers our brains to release dopamine, food is a simple and accessible way to get rid of stress. In our early human days, most of life’s stresses were caused by some form of food insecurity. Exiled from the tribe? Try to survive by gathering food. Being hunted by something or someone? Eat for the added energy you’ll need when the chase hits its climax. Hungry? Food.
Nowadays, stress is a bit more complicated. And food isn’t a satisfactory answer for most of our problems. Stress eating during early recovery is common due to how aggravating this period can be – but avoiding it, and replacing that potential habit with exercise, art, or some other outlet for anger and anxiety is a better way to deal with the first few months of your new drug-free lifestyle.
Obesity isn’t always a question of diet. There are cases when obesity is a matter of physical illness, masked due to the general unhealthiness of drug addiction. For example, hypothyroidism and Cushing’s disease can lead to weight gain despite a strict diet and regular exercise.
Be sure to consult a doctor in recovery and ensure that you’ve got a clean bill of health – and if not, then consider your options for treatment. Obesity correlates with an up 51% increase in mortality among non-smoking individuals, due to increased risk of medical conditions such as diabetes, heart attack, and even cancer. While obsessing over your weight in one direction or the other isn’t healthy, maintaining a normal body weight is worth the time and effort.