Early recovery following drug or alcohol addiction treatment isn’t typically a time when someone puts a lot of thought into what he or she is eating. It’s a time when staying clean and sober is the priority, and everything else tends to fall by the wayside. Considering another change in behavior, like deciding to eat healthily, may seem overwhelming while trying to get to the other side of addiction and all the changes that it takes to remain abstinent from drugs or alcohol. However, there are some benefits to trying to do more healthful eating in addiction recovery – some that will even make you feel better during the rocky road of early sobriety.
Addiction Affects the Reward Center of the Brain Causing Unhealthy Eating Habits
Over time, drug or alcohol addiction causes changes in the reward center of the brain. The substances that are used affect the brain’s reward system by releasing large amounts of dopamine, which is the brain chemical that controls emotion, movement, motivation, and pleasure feelings. This release produces a euphoric feeling that the person who is addicted craves. As the person continues to use drugs or alcohol, the brain recalibrates itself to account for the substances that are introduced into the body by producing less and less dopamine naturally.
When someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol stops using them, his or her brain will not be producing enough dopamine to make the person feel good until the brain once again recalibrates itself, accounting for the absence of the substance. During this period, many addicts will sometimes try unknowingly, to create those pleasurable feeling by eating foods that temporarily make them feel better. These types of foods are usually sweet, salty, high in fat, and easily digestible – a lot of processed snack foods. This way of eating can lead to weight gain, overeating, and malnourishment because they are not getting the proper minerals and vitamins that are crucial to people whose bodies have gone through the devastation of addiction.
What Does Healthful Eating in Addiction Recovery Look Like?
The answer to this question is pretty simple – real food. When a person who is in early recovery has a choice between nutritious food and addictive food, most will make the most “rewarding” choice. Of course, the problem is that the addictive food causes the brain to believe that the person is getting what they need when really, they are stimulating the same neural pathways that were affected by their drug or alcohol addiction. What the person actually needs is a diet that is high in protein, omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
A good example of this type of diet includes:
- Breakfast – Smoothie made of banana, frozen berries, spinach, unsweetened yogurt, flax seeds, and almond milk
- Snack – Whole grain bread with almond butter and a hard-boiled egg
- Lunch – Salad made of mixed raw vegetables and chicken or tuna salad, bean or grain soup
- Snack – Piece of fruit, string cheese, serving of nuts
- Dinner – Salmon, quinoa, asparagus, green salad
- Snack – Piece of fruit with Greek yogurt
Why Is It So Hard to Eat Healthy in Early Addiction Recovery?
It’s easy to understand why it’s so difficult for people in early recovery to eat healthier. They are likely struggling to stay clean and sober and have been told that it’s essential to put that first over everything else – that recovery must be their first priority. It’s also likely that friends and family of people trying to maintain sobriety feel that it might be too much to ask their loved one to give up the foods that bring them some pleasure while they are so new to sobriety.
However, when a newly recovering person eats only those foods that are high in fat, sweet, or salty, like chips, candy, and other snack foods, it can inhibit the brain from healing the way it needs to. Without the proper healing, a person new in recovery is at a higher risk of relapse.
Of course, not all comfort foods should be forbidden. It’s hard enough for those new in recovery to give up their drug of choice, feeling deprived of satisfying snacks will only serve to worsen their moods and make it harder. The key is to have healthy, nutritious foods available and to try to limit the amount of comfort food. Having healthy options like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and seeds on-hand and in greater abundance than high-fat snacks will help the recovering addict to make better choices.
It’s also a good idea for recovering addicts to take a daily multivitamin and extra thiamine (vitamin B1) in early recovery. It will help them restore their body to good health. Keep in mind, though, that taking vitamins isn’t a replacement for eating a nutritious diet.
Getting Started with Healthful Eating in Addiction Recovery
Again, the key to eating healthy in addiction recovery is not the deprivation of foods that are pleasurable and satisfying. Focusing on what to eat rather than on what not to will make it easier. Adding healthy food to one’s diet is a better way to look at it than as removing “bad” foods. Making healthier choices a little bit at a time is far better than feeling robbed of everything that makes you feel content – especially in early recovery.
If you or a family member is suffering from addiction, Life of Purpose Treatment can help. We offer addiction treatment programs in Pennsylvania and Florida. Please contact us today at 844-884-3929 for more information about how to get help.
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