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How Do Food Choices Impact Long-Term Addiction Recovery?


December 14, 2017

The primary goal of addiction recovery is for you to stop using harmful substances completely and permanently. The role of nutrition in addiction recovery can take a back seat in many programs due to limited resources.

Yet, food choices can make a measurable positive difference in the success of addiction recovery, especially when you understand your particular nutritional needs.

Though you may not always have access to personalized nutritional counseling, you can strive to make healthier dietary choices with the goal of better overall health, which is associated with a lower chance of relapse. Here is what you need to know about making smart food choices that will support your long-term recovery.

Common Nutritional Problems of Those in Addiction Recovery

Nutritional problems are common among people with substance abuse disorders. One reason may be a lack of motivation to address basic nutritional needs, and another may be lack of resources with which to obtain healthy food. The problem is, poor dietary habits lead to deficiencies in critical nutrients, which can worsen illnesses like depression and anxiety. Untreated depression and anxiety can lead to relapse.

The type of substance to which you are addicted affects the type of nutritional deficiencies of greatest risk. For example, someone addicted to stimulants may simply not have enough of an appetite to take in adequate nutrition. Other addictions can cause a person to eat too much, which can cause a reliance on empty calories from inexpensive junk food. Alcoholism can cause nutritional deficiencies as well as hijack the bodily systems that are needed to process foods properly.

Goals of a Healthy Eating Plan During Addiction Recovery

People with heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses must carefully monitor the foods they eat, and people in addiction recovery are no different. Nutritional goals during addiction recovery should work toward:

  • Healing physical damage caused by alcohol or other substances
  • Stabilizing mood and making stress management easier
  • Reducing cravings for the substance of choice
  • Addressing co-occurring medical conditions
  • Encouraging proper self-care

Nutrition Education Associated with Better Outcomes

Addiction recovery

Better nutrition is associated with better outcomes in addiction recovery.

A 2004 study of veterans at the James H. Quillen VA Medical Center in Tennessee found that nutrition education during addiction recovery is associated with better treatment program outcomes. In programs where group nutrition education was included along with substance abuse education, patient psychological and medical health scores increased significantly. In fact, nutrition education as part of the addiction recovery process was a strong predictor of a patient’s family and social well-being. Not every addiction treatment program includes the services of registered dietitians, but an increasing number of them recognize the critical importance of nutrition in successful addiction recovery.

What to Aim for in Everyday Eating Patterns

As a person in addiction recovery, you should strive to consume foods that are high in vitamins and minerals, including whole grain bread and cereals, seeds, fruits, vegetables, beans, and legumes. It is also important to take in sufficient carbohydrates since carb cravings can feel like drug cravings. Ideally, carbs should come from whole grains, fruits, nuts, and vegetables rather than from highly processed snack foods.

Fiber intake is also important, because, although fiber is not digested, it plays a key role in regulating blood sugar levels and aiding in healthy digestion. It can be found in foods like oatmeal, beans, nuts, brown rice, apples, tomatoes, and carrots. Likewise, adequate protein intake is needed to ensure enough amino acids are available to the body to keep hormones in balance (including hormones that help regulate mood). Healthy protein sources include chicken, fish, eggs, beans, nuts, and low-fat dairy products.

Finally, you must not forget hydration. Ideally, consumption of water is best, because it helps the body use nutrients optimally and keeps the liver, kidneys, and digestive system working properly. In addition to water, produce like watermelon, strawberries, and cucumbers help with hydration, as do soups, low-fat milk, and low-sugar sports beverages.

In an ideal world, everyone in addiction recovery would have access to personalized nutritional counseling, but even when that is not available, it is important for you to pay close attention to your dietary habits.

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