Nutrition in Addiction Recovery: How Eating Right Helps You Heal

Nutrition in Addiction Recovery: How Eating Right Helps You Heal

Healing in recovery requires paying attention to many different things, and nutrition is right up there at the top of the list. In fact, eating right can help speed recovery by giving your body the essential ingredients it needs to maintain or restore energy, elevate mood, and keep vital organs functioning at optimal levels.

But what constitutes eating right in recovery? While having access to a dietician could be helpful – and may be offered as part of an addiction treatment plan – you don’t have to be a dietician to figure out how to eat healthy. In essence, if you follow the basics, you’ll be doing your body a great service – and aiding in your recovery.

Use the Food Pyramid as a Guide

The basics in nutrition are easier to follow if you use the food pyramid as a guide. Offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the new food pyramid makes use of healthy diet recommendations. These include:

• Emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products
• Includes lean meats, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, and nuts
• Low in trans fats, saturated fats, cholesterol, sodium (salt), and added sugars

Other food pyramids include the Asian Diet Pyramid, Latin American Diet Pyramid, Mayo Clinic Healthy Weight Pyramid, Mediterranean Diet Pyramid, and Vegetarian Food Guide Pyramid. While they all differ, they each emphasize limiting sweets and salt, substituting healthy plant fats in place of trans fats and saturated fats, increasing consumption of plant foods – including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, reducing intake of animal foods – which are also a natural cholesterol source.

Whole Grains

Grains are an essential part of healthy eating, and whole grains are better for you than refined grains. Grains are good sources of complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and they’re low in fat. Whole grains contain more fiber and are better sources of important nutrients such as selenium, potassium, and magnesium.

You can find whole-grain versions of pasta, rice, flour, cereal and bread at almost any grocery store. Whole grains include: barley, brown rice, buckwheat, bulgur (cracked wheat), millet, oatmeal, popcorn, whole-wheat bread/pasta/crackers, and wild rice.

Always look at the label to ensure it says “whole” and that grains are among the first ingredients listed.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetables

You can’t go wrong if you increase your intake of fresh fruit and vegetables each day. These food items help lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of stroke, some cancers and heart disease, lower the risk of digestive and eye problems, and smooth out blood sugar.

How much should you eat each day? Aim for about 9 servings (at least 4.5 cups) of fruit and vegetables. As for which ones, go for variety and color. Examples include dark leafy greens, blueberries, oranges, and tomatoes – anything that’s a rich red, yellow, orange, or dark green. This will ensure that you provide your body the mix of nutrients it needs to speed your healing process and keep you well.


Nutrition experts say that animal and vegetable proteins probably have the same effects on health. However, it’s the package the protein comes in that is important. That’s why you should pay more attention to what you get in addition to the protein.

Vegetable sources of protein – beans, nuts, and whole grains, for example, are also excellent sources of fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Animal protein sources considered the best are fish and poultry. If you really like red meat (beef, pork, and lamb), limit your intake to the leanest cuts and only eat it occasionally. Also, skip processed meats like hot dogs and cold cuts altogether.

Use Only Good Fats

There are good fats and bad fats and it’s not hard to figure out that bad fats are, well, bad for you. They’re not only bad for those in recovery, they’re bad for everyone. What are the good and bad fats? Read on.

Good fats are unsaturated fats. These fats can improve blood cholesterol levels, stabilize heart rhythms, and ease inflammation, along with other benefits. Two types of good fats are monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Foods containing monounsaturated fats include nuts such as almonds, pecans and hazelnuts, seeds such as pumpkin and sesame, and oils such as canola, peanut, and olive. Polyunsaturated fats in high concentrations occur in fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and in oils such as sunflower, corn, soybean, and flaxseed. Omega-3 fats, which are found in fish, are also an important part of polyunsaturated fats – since the body can’t manufacture them. The best way to get Omega-3 fats is to eat fish 2 to 3 times per week. Omega-3’s are also in walnuts, flaxseeds, and oils such as canola, flaxseed, and soybean.

Bad fats are saturated fats, and are included in many food products, but occur mainly in meat, seafood, poultry with skin, and whole-milk dairy products (cheese, ice cream, and milk).

Trans fats are the worst of the bad fats and are found in most commercially prepared baked goods, margarines, snack foods, processed foods, French fries prepared in fast-food and other restaurants.

Water is Essential

Water accounts for about 60 percent of human body weight. Every system in the human body depends on water for optimal functioning. Water flushes toxins from your system, including your kidneys, which may have been damaged as a result of your addiction.

The human body loses water every day – through perspiration, breath, urine and bowel movements. This water must be replaced. If it isn’t, the result can be dehydration. Even a mild case of dehydration can leave you feeling tired and drained of energy.

How much water should you consume? There is no one-size-fits-all prescribed amount. How much you need depends on several factors: your health, how active you are, where you live (in high altitudes, desert, etc.), and more. Nevertheless, there are some recommendations for how much water the average adult should consume daily. The basic guideline is to drink 8 to 9 cups a day. When you’re in recovery, replenishing water that’s lost every day is even more critical.

Don’t wait until you feel thirsty to drink water. By that time, you may already be dehydrated. To ensure you’re drinking enough water each day, use the following tips:

• Drink a glass of water with every meal – and between each meal.
• Drink water before, during, and after exercise.
• Substitute water or sparkling water for other drinks (coffee, alcohol) at social gatherings and work functions.

Watch Out for Caffeine

It seems almost cyclical that caffeine gets a bad rap followed by studies that reportedly find that drinking coffee is good for some part of your body. Perhaps the old maxim, “Too much of anything is not a good thing” is appropriate here. You can become addicted to caffeine, just as you can become addicted to too much sugar, alcohol, drugs, and other substances.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t drink coffee and be in recovery. In fact, the truth is that when you drink coffee in moderation, you’ll most likely be just fine. Caffeine does offer specific benefits to those in recovery – and the general population, for that matter. These include protecting against liver cancer, Type II diabetes, and Parkinson’s disease. You’ll also feel more alert, stimulated by the chemical properties of the caffeine in the coffee.

Just watch out for over-consumption of caffeine. Heavy caffeine use – in the area of 4 to 7 cups of coffee a day – can lead to other problems you probably don’t want in recovery. Too much coffee can cause restlessness, sleeplessness, anxiety, jitteriness, and irritability, even more so in susceptible individuals. Research studies have found that two or more cups of coffee a day can increase the risk of heart disease in people with a specific genetic mutation that’s fairly common. This genetic mutation slows caffeine’s breakdown in the body. Another study found high consumption of unfiltered coffee is associated with mild elevations in the level of cholesterol in the body.

So, after a long day and you show up for your 12-step meeting, when everyone else is grabbing a cup of coffee and/or going out for a smoke, if you’ve had your share of caffeine for the day, maybe it’s better to switch to water instead and skip the cigarette.

Energy Drinks – Just Caffeine in Disguise

Another popular pick-me-up is the use of energy drinks. When you’re in recovery, however, downing an energy drink is probably not a good idea. The fact is that energy drinks are just caffeine under a different name. How they boost your energy is because they’re loaded with caffeine – and sugar, which can lead to weight gain and cause other problems. And the energy boost you get is only temporary, no matter what the advertising says.

Just like too much caffeine in coffee is not good for you, too much caffeine in energy drinks can result in increased blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, nervousness, and irritability.

Energy drinks are also loaded with other ingredients: taurine, ginseng, ginkgo biloba, and more – that are stimulants.
Worse yet, mixing an energy drink with alcohol is just asking for trouble. Even if you’re not in recovery for alcoholism, alcohol – to someone in recovery – is tantamount to playing with fire. Sooner or later, you’re going to get burned. It’s too easy to believe that you’re fine when the boost you get feels so great. But alcohol and energy drinks are a bad combination, no matter what your age, addiction, or amount of time in recovery.

If you’re tempted to consume an energy drink to counteract fatigue or a rundown feeling, use a healthier alternative. Eat a healthy diet, make sure exercise is part of your daily regimen, and get adequate sleep. If you still feel lethargic, consult your doctor. You may have an underlying medical condition such as anemia or hypothyroidism that needs attention.

Eating Right – and Regular

Armed with all this knowledge, how do you ensure that you’re eating right and regular? The best way is to stick to the three meals a day schedule. That’s right: Eat a well-balanced breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily. Don’t con yourself into thinking a quick cup of coffee and a Danish constitutes breakfast. There are many things wrong with this idea, but two include the fact that caffeine only offers a temporary energy boost and the Danish contains the bad fats, sugars, and empty calories.
For breakfast – even if you don’t have a lot of time – eat whole-grain cereal topped with some fresh fruit and add fat-free milk. Or, make a quick fruit smoothie with dark berries (blueberries or strawberries or raspberries), banana, fat-free milk, and ice cubes.

Lunch on-the-go needn’t be Spartan, either. Opt for a lean protein wrap with oven-roasted chicken, low-fat mayonnaise, whole-grain tortilla, dark leafy lettuce, tomato, and sweet Bermuda or red onion slice.

How about a tomato-basil-garlic pasta sauce and whole-grain pasta for dinner? Add a mixed green salad and olive oil and vinaigrette dressing and have some fresh fruit for dessert. See, it’s not hard to eat well-balanced meals and do yourself right with respect to your recovery.

The key is to keep your nutrition intake regular and consistent. Don’t go for long periods without eating. Keep healthy snacks readily available – such as a handful of nuts or a piece of fresh fruit – to stave off hunger. When you’re hungry, you’re likely to become irritable, anxious, or depressed and prone to making bad decisions – not only in your food choices but also with regard to cravings and urges.

Another tip is to enlist a friend or family member – people who are part of your support network – to help you create and maintain a healthy eating regimen. You could both get involved in a cooking class, or take turns coming up with different menu ideas to try out on the family or for get-togethers.

Get good healthy eating ideas by watching the cooking shows on cable TV (like the Food Network). Steer clear of the all-you-can-eat or eating the most bizarre foods type of shows, however. Sure, eating bugs might be entertaining to watch (they’re full of protein), but it’s not very appetizing to most people.

Bottom line: Stick with the basics, eat well-balanced meals on a regular basis, drink plenty of water, avoid caffeine and energy drinks, and keep a positive outlook. Remember that good nutrition and recovery go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other.

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