How Healthy Eating Can Help You With Addiction Recovery
Written by Munis Topcuoglu, Editor at EHN Canada.
Healthy eating helps you with addiction recovery by allowing your mind and body to work better and heal faster. It helps you maintain your recovery by supporting your mind and body to function well consistently, thus maintaining your good health. Eating a healthy diet helps you with addiction recovery in a number of specific ways such as stabilizing your mood, improving your focus, increasing your energy, and making you better at resisting cravings for addictive substances and behaviors. Conversely, nutrient deficiencies can make addiction recovery more difficult by making you more susceptible to depression, distraction, fatigue, and cravings. Substance use disorders can make you are especially vulnerable to nutrient deficiencies, for a number of behavioral and biological reasons—but healthy eating can help correct your nutrient deficiencies and greatly improve your odds of successfully achieving recovery and maintaining it long term.
Healthy Eating Means Getting the Right Nutrients and Calories in the Right Quantities
Your mind and body use up nutrients and energy constantly, so healthy eating requires that you get sufficient nutrients and energy regularly from the foods you eat. Healthy eating means getting enough of all the nutrients you need to function well and be healthy, but not excessive amounts of any nutrients that would be enough to harm you. Healthy eating also means getting enough calories (energy) that you need for performing healthy physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight, but not so much that it would cause you to gain an unhealthy amount of body fat.
There are two main categories of nutrients, macro-nutrients and micro-nutrients. Macro-nutrients are basic building blocks and energy sources for your body; you must get them in relatively large amounts, such as 10’s or 100’s of grams per day. In comparison, micro-nutrients have specialized functions in your body; you need them in much smaller amounts, such as micrograms or milligrams per day.
The three macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
Protein is used for building and repairing all the cells in your body. It is especially important for muscle and connective tissue, but is also necessary for producing hormones and neurotransmitters. Proteins are composed of amino acids. There are some amino acids that your body needs but cannot produce: these are called “essential amino acids.”
Fat is a preferred energy source, but is also essential for your nervous system, building cell membranes, and producing hormones. There are some fats that your body needs but cannot produce: these are called “essential fatty acids.”
Carbohydrates are an optional energy source. Appropriate carbohydrate intake depends on your physical activity levels and your genetics. Excessive carbohydrate intake can disrupt your metabolism, cause you to gain unhealthy body fat, and lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The two main groups of micro-nutrients are vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are organic molecules and minerals are chemical elements. Each vitamin and mineral has specialized roles within your body and they are all required in small amounts for your mind and body to function properly. Your body cannot produce vitamins or minerals.
Essential nutrients and healthy foods
Essential nutrients are nutrients that your body requires to function properly but cannot produce, they are the following: essential amino acids, essential fatty acids, vitamins, and minerals. Since your body cannot produce them, you must get them from the food you eat.
Healthy eating means getting all the essential nutrients that you need. Therefore, healthy foods are foods that contain high amounts of essential nutrients; they are usually whole, unprocessed, and fresh. In contrast, unhealthy foods contain low amounts of essential nutrients and are often refined, processed, and contain preservatives.
Addiction Makes It Difficult to Eat Healthy, Often Resulting in Nutrient Deficiencies
Addictive substances and behaviors can make healthy eating more difficult in a number of ways. They can also prevent you from getting enough nutrients despite a normally healthy diet. When you don’t get enough of a particular essential nutrient in your body, you develop a nutrient deficiency. Addictive substances can interfere with healthy eating and cause nutrient deficiencies in the following ways.
Reducing your appetite
When your appetite is reduced and you regularly eat less food, you might not get enough nutrients and energy even if the foods you eat are normally healthy foods.
Increasing cravings for unhealthy foods
When you have cravings and eat a lot of unhealthy foods, it can be difficult to get all the nutrients you need, since unhealthy foods contain low amounts of essential nutrients.
Reducing how well you absorb nutrients
Getting enough nutrients requires that you absorb the nutrients from food in your digestive system. Since some addictive substances can reduce your ability to absorb nutrients, you might not get enough nutrients even if you have a normally healthy diet.
Depleting nutrients in your body
Getting enough nutrients means that the amount of each nutrient you get equals the amount your body uses up. Some addictive substances can cause your body to use up nutrients in much larger quantities than normal, or they can destroy nutrients in your body. When either of these happens, you might not get enough nutrients even if you have a normally healthy diet.
Reduce your motivation to eat healthy
Staying motivated to eat healthy requires maintaining the belief that healthy eating will produce positive outcomes for you. It also requires the confidence that you will succeed at healthy eating long enough to experience those positive outcomes. Addiction can make it more difficult to maintain a positive outlook on the future and can also negatively affect your confidence.
Take your attention and energy away from your goal of healthy eating
Especially when you first start, healthy eating requires that you pay careful attention to choosing the foods you eat. Shopping for and preparing healthy foods also usually requires more time and energy compared to unhealthy foods. Addictions can be distracting and take your attention away from healthy eating. They can also get in the way of healthy eating by draining your time and energy.
Nutrient deficiencies and too few calories
As described above, recovering addicts often do not eat healthy and do not get enough nutrients and calories. If you are a recovering addict, you may have nutrient deficiencies that are harming your mind and body in ways that make getting sober and staying sober much harder. A caloric deficit (eating too few calories) can also make getting and staying sober much harder.
Healthy Eating Makes Addiction Recovery Easier—Nutrient Deficiencies Make It Harder
There are a number of factors that are essential for addiction recovery and recovery maintenance. These factors are positively affected by healthy eating and negatively affected by nutrient deficiencies.
Mood and confidence
A positive outlook and confidence in your ability to overcome challenges makes it easier to accomplish difficult tasks. Healthy eating can help maintain a stable positive mood whereas nutrient deficiencies can make you more vulnerable to anxiety and depression. For example, research has shown a relationship between folic acid (vitamin B9) deficiency and depressed mood, and also a relationship between thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency and decreased self-confidence (Ottley, 2000).
Focus and awareness
Focusing on achieving your goals combined with maintaining awareness of yourself and your environment are very useful practices. Healthy eating can improve your ability to focus and maintain awareness whereas nutrient deficiencies can make you more vulnerable to distractions. An example is magnesium deficiency, occurring especially frequently in recovering addicts, which has symptoms including confusion and insomnia (Flink, 1985).
Motivation, drive, and energy
Consistent motivation, drive, and energy are necessary for problem solving and overcoming obstacles. Healthy eating can help maintain high levels of motivation, drive, and energy whereas nutrient deficiencies can cause you to experience more ups and downs that jeopardize your success. A well-known example is iron deficiency which can cause apathy and abnormal fatigue (Ottley, 2000).
Experience of cravings and ability to resist them
Feeling cravings less intensely and being able to resist them are both critically important. Healthy eating can make your cravings for addictive substances and behaviors less intense, it can also strengthen your willpower to resist them. Conversely, nutrient deficiencies can make your cravings more intense and weaken your willpower. One example is a study which showed that alcoholics treated with a traditional therapy combined with nutritional therapy had less alcohol cravings and were more successful at abstaining compared to alcoholics treated with only traditional therapy (Biery et al., 1991).
Too Much of Certain Macro-Nutrients Can Also Make Recovery and Maintenance Harder
Certain macro-nutrients consumed in excess can harm you and make addiction recovery and recovery maintenance more difficult, a few examples follow.
Too much sugars (simple carbohydrates) can cause you to have unstable energy levels, intensified cravings, and lower willpower. Sugar is a reinforcing substance which has demonstrated cross-sensitization with other addictive substances such as amphetamine and alcohol in rodent models (Hoebel et al., 2009).
Fat: ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3
Researchers believe that a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 (two fatty acids) can increase systemic inflammation which contributes to the development of chronic conditions such as arthritis and cardiovascular disease (Patterson et al., 2012) and also depression (Berk et al., 2013).
Some addictive substances cause kidney damage. If you have kidney damage, there is evidence which suggests that excessive protein consumption can make it worse (Levey et al., 1996).
For Best Results Make Healthy Eating a Part of Your Addiction Recovery Plan
Healthy eating will ensure that the food you eat is helping your addiction recovery and not holding you back. It will ensure that the food you eat is protecting you from relapse and not increasing your risk.
Healthy eating is challenging for anyone and to succeed you need a clear plan for how you will start eating a healthier diet and for how you will develop habits to keep eating healthy for the rest of your life. The following list is a good starting point:
- Eat whole, fresh, unprocessed foods.
- Avoid fast food—completely, if possible.
- Avoid refined sugars—completely, if possible.
- Avoid highly processed vegetable oils (e.g. canola)—completely, if possible.
- Cold-pressed olive oil and other minimally processed vegetable oils are okay in small amounts.
- Avoid grains—completely, if practical. If you are very physically active or trying to gain weight, go with white rice.
- Consume unprocessed, whole-food sugars and starches sparingly (e.g. fruit, sweet potatoes, squash) unless you are very physically active or trying to gain weight.
- Eat a variety of different foods whenever possible.
- Eat meat that is grass-fed, organic, or naturally raised.
- Eat fish that is wild-caught or organic.
- Grass-fed butter is a great source of healthy fats and fat-soluble vitamins.
- Consume grass-fed milk or cheese only if you, personally, can tolerate dairy.
- Eat vegetables as tolerated and needed for regular digestion.
- Consume nuts and seeds sparingly.
However, each individual’s nutritional requirements are different, due to a wide range of factors. Professional consultation can help you design a personalized plan for your own specific needs and develop a deeper understanding of your unique nutritional requirements.
EHN Canada Facilities Can Help You Eat Healthy, Achieve Recovery, and Maintain It
The comprehensive drug rehab and other treatment programs at EHN Canada facilities include nutrition planning through consultation with our staff dietitians. Our nutrition planning aims to get you eating healthy with the following objectives for successful long-term addiction recovery:
- Stabilize your mood and improve your resilience;
- Increase your focus and energy levels;
- Reduce your cravings for drugs, alcohol, and addictive behaviors;
- Heal the damage caused to your body by alcohol or substance abuse;
- Improve any other medical conditions you may have;
- Develop habits of self-care and a healthy lifestyle.
Please Call Us for More Information
If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, enrol yourself in one of our programs, or refer someone else, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-587-350-6818 for EHN Sandstone, in Calgary, AB
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC
Online Treatment and Support
If you’d like to learn more about our online treatment and support options, please call us at 1-800-387-6198 or visit onthewagon.ca.
Further Reading About How Specific Nutrients Can Help Addiction Recovery and Recovery Maintenance
Protein Part 1
Protein Part 2
Vitamins & Minerals
Berk, M., Williams, L. J., Jacka, F. N., O’Neil, A., Pasco, J. A., Moylan, S., … & Maes, M.
(2013). So depression is an inflammatory disease, but where does the inflammation come from?. BMC medicine, 11(1), 200.
Biery, J. R., Williford, J. J., & McMullen, E. A. (1991). Alcohol craving in rehabilitation: assessment of nutrition therapy. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 91(4), 463-466.
Flink, E. B. (1985). Magnesium deficiency in human subjects—a personal historical perspective. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 4(1), 17-31.
Hoebel, B. G., Avena, N. M., Bocarsly, M. E., & Rada, P. (2009). Natural addiction: A behavioral and circuit model based on sugar addiction in rats. Journal of Addiction Medicine, 3, 33-41.
Levey, A. S., Adler, S., Caggiula, A. W., England, B. K., Greene, T., Hunsicker, L. G., … & Teschan, P. E. (1996). Effects of dietary protein restriction on the progression of moderate renal disease in the modification of diet in renal disease study: modification of diet in renal disease study group. Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, 7(12), 2616-2626.
Ottley, C. (2000). Food and mood. Nursing Standard (through 2013), 15(2), 46.
Patterson, E., Wall, R., Fitzgerald, G. F., Ross, R. P., & Stanton, C. (2012). Health implications of high dietary omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids. Journal of nutrition and metabolism, 2012.x
Addiction Recovery: How Healthy Fats Help
The topic of dietary fat often brings forth different opinions, with both negative and positive connotations. As one of the six essential nutrients found in food, fats also known as fatty acids or lipids play a vital role as a source of energy for our body. Despite the importance of this nutrient in our diet, fats have been given a bad rap in recent history, with beliefs that limiting and even avoiding fats is best practice. What is often minimized in this discussion are the different types of fats, including beneficial fats which are essential for normal functioning of our body and disease prevention.
Active addiction has many consequences in overall health, and one area that is often impacted is diet and nutrition. In recovery from alcohol, drug, sex and food addiction, balance and moderation is an important component of refueling, healing and restoring good health. Fats are an imperative part of maintaining these tasks, and ultimately improving both physical and mental health concerns.
Saturated and Unsaturated fats
Saturated fats are unhealthy fats found in animal based foods such as meat, poultry, cheese and dairy products. Trans fats are another group of unhealthy fats that are made during partial hydrogenation, or when liquid oil is turned into a solid fat. Foods include margarine, baked goods and fried foods.
Both saturated and trans fats offer minimal health benefits, and when consumed in large amounts have been linked to heart disease, diabetes and stroke. Saturated fats have been shown to increase LDL (low density lipoproteins), which is known as the ‘bad cholesterol’. It increases plaque buildup on the walls of the arteries and causes blockages and increased risk for developing heart disease, and specifically for a heart attack. Trans fats also increase LDL levels, and in addition it decreases the ‘good’ cholesterol called HDL (high density lipoproteins) which helps to take the cholesterol out of the blood vessels, reducing plaque buildup on the blood vessel walls and improving heart health.
Unsaturated fats are healthy fats that can be broken down into monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) which include omega 3 and omega 6. Monounsaturated fats include nuts, canola, olive, sunflower and safflower oil and avocados. Omega 3 PUFA includes fatty fishes such as trout, herring, salmon, sardines, flaxseed, walnuts and soybeans. Omega 6 PUFA includes vegetable oil, corn oil and walnuts. Choosing unsaturated fats in place of saturated fats help to reduce LDL levels, and increase HDL levels which is best for normal cardiovascular function.
Fats are an important source of energy, and depending on the foods chosen, they can help or harm ones’ overall health. However it is important to remember that too much of any fat can have negative impacts on overall health. Health Canada recommends that 20-30% of our total daily caloric intake come from fat. While remaining mindful that choosing unsaturated fat sources, limiting saturated fat intake, and less than 2% of fat intake from trans-fat provides optimal health and meeting dietary recommendations.
Health Benefits in Addiction Recovery
Due to low appetite, irregular eating patterns and poor food choices, healthy fats may not bet consumed in sufficient amounts, which affects the health of those in active addiction. Choosing the right fats in addiction recovery can have significant benefits on both mental and physical health.
Studies show that low levels of omega 3’s have been linked with depression. As omega 3 rich foods may not be consumed during the addiction, this nutrient deficit could contribute to symptoms of depression. Another study shows that low levels of EPA (a type of omega 3) have been linked with ‘impulsive behaviour, hostility and cynical ideas’ (Barclay, 2007). Mood swings or fluctuations, as well as depression can be a significant trigger to use an addictive substance or behaviour. Correcting this deficit by incorporating omega 3 rich foods such as fatty fish for example is important in potentially reducing these symptoms and obstacles in recovery. Healthy fats are also important as they aid in the absorption of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Some of the other functions of fats include providing texture and mouth feel to foods, as well as promoting satiety which helps us feel full for longer periods.
These examples all have an impact on addiction recovery. Practicing good nutrition by following a meal plan of three meals and three snacks a day is key. A meal plan including a good source of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats is an important part of supporting sober living, by improving heart health, cognition, mood and brain function. Each of these macronutrients play a role in addiction recovery, and despite the negative views on fats, it too has an important role by protecting and healing our mind and body.
- Barclay, L. (2007). Fighting Depression and Improving Cognition with Omega-3 Fatty Acids. Retrieved 2 July, 2015, from https://www.lifeextension.com/magazine/2007/10/report_depression/Page-01