How to Support Your Recovery with Healthy Nutrition
If you’re recovering from a substance use disorder, nutrition can play a large part in your recovery. That’s important both for ensuring your diet contributes to recovery and for ensuring your diet doesn’t contribute to relapse. Understanding how each work should help you with making those good decisions around food, nutrition, and getting better.
You’ve heard the phrase, “we are what we eat”, and that’s especially true when facing poor health and poor gut health after potentially years of abusing drugs or alcohol. Taking the right steps to support your recovery with healthy nutrition is important. In most cases, those steps look something like this:
Visit the Doctor
We highly recommend that you see a doctor. No article can help you diagnose nutritional deficiencies. You might have real nutritional deficiencies and you might need corrective supplementation to get your health back on track. Alternatively, your nutrition levels might be perfectly healthy, and supplements might cause more harm than good. It’s important to see a medical professional. Here, many rehab centers and recovery centers offer nutritional therapy and guidance as part of recovery, simply because nutrition has such a large impact on your recovery.
You want to know if:
- Your nutrition levels are normal and if you might be suffering from nutritional deficiencies. E.g., vitamin A, Vitamin B, and Vitamin D deficiencies are all extremely common in recovering addicts. In fact, 74% of addicts have nutritional deficiencies or malnutrition. Getting a blood panel test will let you know if you need medical intervention or if long-term healthy diet choices are enough.
- You’re facing inflammation or poor liver and kidney health. Long-term drug and alcohol abuse often causes inflammation of the intestines. You might not be able to see this without a colonoscopy, which you’ll only ever do if things are going very wrong. However, talking to your doctor about it to see if they are willing to run tests to see if you need additional medical intervention for your recovery.
In both cases, it’s important to talk to your doctor before starting supplements or before choosing not to. If you go about adding nutrition to your recovery without a doctor, don’t take more than an over-the-counter multivitamin. In addition, your primary focus should be on eating well.
Making a Nutrition Plan
If you’ve talked to a doctor or to a dietician, they can help you build a nutrition plan that suits your needs. Otherwise, you want to focus on adding healthy food to your diet in a way that you can sustainably commit to. That means taking steps to:
- Plan meals and ensure you’re getting roughly 80% healthy food
- Make meal-prep and purchasing sustainable. It doesn’t make sense to create a meal plan if you can’t afford it or don’t have the time or energy to stick to it.
- Consider making meals upfront to put in the freezer so you can eat healthy food when busy, at work, and when you get home tired.
In most cases, you don’t need any special foods or even expensive foods to eat healthy. While it is true that fresh produce costs a lot more than, say, living burgers off the dollar menu from McDonalds, frozen and canned vegetables can also be very nutritious. In fact, frozen vegetables like peas and carrots can actually have more nutrition because they were frozen before the nutritional content started to decay. And, with very little prep needed, those vegetables are often a superior choice if you’re short on time or motivation to cook.
Eventually, if you follow a plan like MyPlate.gov, you’ll be getting good nutrition on average. These plans aim for an average of eating the right things, which is more than enough to get your nutrition back up where you need it to be. And, aiming for eating well on average is a lot more achievable and sustainable than trying to eat healthy every single day.
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What does a healthy eating schedule look like?
- Avoid sugary beverages like soda, energy drinks, fruit juice, etc., with little nutritional value
- Mostly avoid high sugar and high processed foods like donuts and cake or pastry and save those things as an occasional treat
- Try to get 2-3 servings of vegetables in with most meals. A large salad covers that. You can always add vegetables to other foods to ensure you’re getting more of them.
- Eat 2-3 servings of fruit per day. Try to have these between meals or before meals instead of after.
- Eat multiple small meals throughout the day to ensure you’re getting the most out of the nutritional content
- Try to ensure you have healthy snack options around. Snacking can be very healthy, just watch your total calorie intake, and having nuts, fruit, seeds, and other high-nutrition foods
Eventually, a good balance is important. You still want to eat things you enjoy; you want to have time to do things you want, and you want food to be a pleasant part of your life.
Why is Nutrition Important in Recovery?
Why is eating well so important in recovery? There are actually two primary reasons. The first is that nutritional deficiencies make you vulnerable to relapse. Deficiencies like Vitamin A and Vitamin B or Vitamin D can mimic severe mental health disorders. You might be unable to cope with life without adding something or numbing unpleasant emotions. The fact that the problems come from nutritional deficiencies means you can fix or correct them, but it’s often difficult to tell where something is coming from when you’re experiencing it. Why is this? Nutrients form the building blocks of neurotransmitters, which you might know by names like dopamine, GABBA, serotonin, etc. When you don’t have the nutrients for your body to create those, it cannibalizes other processes first, and then you simply have fewer of those vital processes in place.
The second thing is that binge eating, especially high sugar and caffeine content, can actually mimic the process of substance abuse in your brain. If you find yourself gravitating towards a lot of sugar and caffeine, you’re probably stimulating the same sort of dopamine and serotonin production in your brain as a high. It’s less, but it’s similar. So, rather than recovering, you’ll move the behavioral aspect of addiction from one substance to another. And, long-term, that can be incredibly unhealthy for your mental health and your recovery.
Making the choice to switch to healthy eating habits can help you to build a good relationship with your body and your mental health. It can help you to build habits and discipline. You’ll build pride in yourself for achieving those goals and taking care of yourself. And, over time, your body will recover nutrition levels and you’ll start to feel better because your body has what it needs to feel good.