We have more nutritional information at our fingertips now than ever before. From dieticians’ blogs and fitness forums to physicians’ tips and medical studies, we can easily find any number of articles that tell us why eating this and not that is better. But changing many behaviors all at once is a little more challenging, especially when you’re in recovery. The good news is with dedicated attention, a shift to more whole foods is easy to maintain, once you know how.
Why Proper Nutrition Matters in Recovery
The National Library of Medicine (NLM) reports that most people who experience alcohol and substance abuse become malnourished. In fact, the organization states that “alcohol use is one of the major causes of nutritional deficiency in the United States.” Excessive alcohol abuse damages the liver—which rids the body of toxins—and the pancreas—which regulates blood sugar and fat absorption. This creates “an imbalance of fluids, calories, protein, and electrolytes.” Additionally, they lack essential B vitamins and folic acid, which results in the development of anemia and neurological problems.
Different drugs cause considerable nutritional challenges as well. NLM states that:
- Narcotics such as codeine, fentanyl, heroin, morphine, and oxycodone, “affect the gastrointestinal system.” Constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting are common symptoms, which “may lead to a lack of enough nutrients and an imbalance of electrolytes (such as sodium, potassium, and chloride).”
- Stimulants reduce appetite, which “leads to weight loss and poor nutrition.” Since many people who use crack, cocaine, and methamphetamines stay awake for extended periods of time, “they may be dehydrated and have electrolyte imbalances during these episodes. Returning to a normal diet can be hard if a person has lost a lot of weight.”
- Long-term marijuana users “may be overweight and need to cut back on fat, sugar, and total calories.”
Additionally, substance use compromises the processing of tryptophan and tyrosine. These amino acids help produce essential neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Without them, people often have difficulty regulating behaviors and moods.
How Whole Foods Help You Heal
Just as a medically supervised detoxification program eliminates chemical substances from your system, how you fuel your body and mind is the foundation of continued recovery wellness. With essential nutrients, you start to feel better emotionally, mentally, and physically. This helps reinforce a commitment to overall wellness, and perhaps reduce the risk of relapse.
Other benefits of a focused whole-foods eating plan include:
- Proper functioning of the gastrointestinal and nervous systems
- Healing damaged organs and tissues
- Strengthening the immune system
Improved nutrition also reduces stress, provides better mental clarity, and helps with mood regulation.
Don’t Feel the Need to Do It All at Once
What you learn during addiction residential treatment is often a lot to take in, and this is the point when most people might feel overwhelmed having to do “one more thing.” This is okay, as behavioral changes take time—some experts say at least 66 days, but often as long as 254 days! Why the variance? It’s all about how the brain adapts to a new behavior and then creates a habit of it.
So when changing to a whole-foods diet, it might be easier to start with some simple steps for a few weeks, and gradually add on. For example:
- Drink more water. People recovering from substance abuse are chronically dehydrated. To avoid this, Mayo Clinic recommends that you “drink a glass of water with each meal and between meals; before, during, and after exercise; and if you feel thirsty.” The average amount is 15.5 cups for men and 11.5 cups for women daily.
- Eliminate sugary drinks. While they might count toward your fluid goals, they’re full of empty calories, sugar, and chemicals. Ease your caffeine and sugar withdrawal symptoms by gradually cutting back a little day by day for two weeks until you only have soda or energy drinks occasionally—or not at all.
- Speaking of sugar, phase it out. Who doesn’t like a sweet treat now and again? That’s totally fine. But the health recommendations for the average person is a total of 6–9 teaspoons daily: which is the amount in one 12 oz. can of soda. Most of us have up to 30 teaspoons of extra sugar every day. The Cleveland Clinic reports that it’s totally possible for someone to develop a sugar dependency. So start with limitations and substitutions: instead of three cookies, have one. Then work your way up to a piece of fruit instead of cookies.
Helpful Whole-Foods Choices
The term “whole food” means a natural source, such as a vegetable or a fruit, with minimal processing, and free of additives and artificial substances. It also includes lean animal and marine proteins, plant proteins, and nuts and seeds. An example of a nutritious whole-foods meal would be a grilled chicken breast seasoned with a dash of olive oil, salt, and lemon pepper, a side of steamed broccoli and red potatoes, and a large bowl of blueberries for dessert. An example of a processed meal is a fast food cheeseburger and fries with a chocolate shake.
When you’re ready to really focus on whole-foods nutrition, you’ll find dozens of reliable sites with great information, enticing recipes, and more, including but not limited to:
- EatRight.org from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Medline Plus
- The Nutrition Source from Harvard School of Public Health
Great Oaks: Your Recovery Partner
At our inpatient rehabilitation facility just outside of Houston, we have an entire staff dedicated to your lasting wellness. If you need additional assistance maintaining your recovery, please reach out.