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
Four Reasons to Boost Your Heart Health
It’s February and Valentine’s Day is coming. What better time to think about your heart! Why not check out these tips to help boost your health:
- A heavier body weight may be linked to heart disease. Compared to people of normal weight, overweight people are at 22% higher risk of having a stroke. In obese people, the risk rises to 64%. This was published in a 2010 report in the journal Stroke, which obtained results from 25 studies involving over two million people. Consider changing your food choices. A healthy diet (check out the Canada Food Guide) is about 80% of the solution. Improving food choices (especially decreasing processed food), eating out less and being mindful of portion size are a good place to start. Remember to start off each day with a healthy breakfast that includes protein. Change it up; variety is the spice of life!
- Exercise is roughly 20% of the solution to maintaining a healthy body weight. If your goal is to reach a healthier weight, it is essential that when you exercise, you maintain 65-80% level of intensity for over 30 minutes several times per week. Try doing a variety of workouts and consider exercising with a partner.
- Smoking causes major stress on the heart. If you smoke, consider talking to your doctor about getting help to kick the habit. According to the British Heart Foundation, smokers are almost twice as likely to have a heart attack as non-smokers. After a few months without smoking, your cardiovascular exercise will become easier and more enjoyable.
- Change your mood! Are you feeling blue? Short days mean less sunshine, and many of us feel down when we aren’t getting enough light. The good news is, just twenty to thirty minutes of moderate exercise can cause the release of endorphins. These endorphins make us feel happy! Exercise may be an effective way to improve your mood!
So this Valentine’s Day, why not plan an active date with your sweetheart? Go skiing, or skating, go for a walk or do an exercise class together! Then go home and cook up some healthy food and savour it! Take good care of your heart!
Wendy Lee, BA, Kinesiology, has been working in the Physical Health Department at Bellwood since 2009. She has over ten years of experience working in community rehabilitation clinics and in the outpatient orthopedic clinic at York Central Hospital as part of their Physiotherapy team.
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
Understanding Emotional Eating
We all deal with our emotions in different ways. One may seek refuge in a friend, while others may withdraw and seek solitude. Some people turn to food as a source of comfort and pleasure. This scenario is not typically ruled by physical hunger, but rather an emotional hunger that is satisfied by specific foods, such as potato chips, ice cream or chocolate. Most comfort foods have something in common; they contain sugar, fat and/or sodium. It may be difficult to control how much we eat during these times, as ‘comfort foods’ elicit a calming feeling and ultimately improve our mood – fueling us to continue eating. We have all engaged in this behaviour on occasion in the past, but at what point does this behaviour become problematic? When one eats to create a feeling, or to manage emotions regardless of hunger levels, this creates an unhealthy relationship with food.
Food in the Reward System
Food, music and sex are stimuli that naturally release dopamine, initiating the reward center in our brain, which deem them as rewarding and worth repeating. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter commonly known as the ‘pleasure molecule’ is increased in our brain nerve endings and creates feelings of happiness and pleasure. While food does not affect dopamine levels to the degree that addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol do, it triggers the brain to repeat the rewarding behaviour, in this case – eating. Refined foods that are heavily processed are often higher in sugar and sodium, and these are broken down and absorbed into our bloodstream quickly, giving the brain a sudden rise in dopamine levels. These refined foods are more likely to stimulate dopamine levels, versus foods that our body has to work harder to process – such as complex carbohydrates or protein including whole grains or meat.
Food is much more than just a source of energy for our bodies. It is an integral component of sustaining life. However through habit and our own experiences, we have learned that we can manipulate how we feel by choosing certain foods. For some, this can become an all-consuming behaviour in ones’ life.
Emotional Hunger vs. Physical Hunger
Food is commonly a source of stress relief for many. People may indulge in food cravings in hopes of easing stress and anguish, or to feel happy. However, many who find themselves in these scenarios are left with feelings of regret or guilt.
How do we differentiate between emotional hunger versus physical hunger? There are many differences that can help identify whether food may improve or harm the situation.
Physical hunger is a biological signal indicating a need for food to provide our body with energy. Physical hunger is gradual, whereas emotional hunger is sudden. Emotional hunger is usually urgent, and often involves very specific foods, which are often unhealthy. However physical hunger can be delayed or addressed at a later time, and we are open to more choices in what will be satisfying.
Often emotional eating leaves one unsatisfied, which encourages more food in order to feel content. Whereas in physical hunger, our body registers food consumed and we feel satiated. It is common to experience feelings of guilt over the food choices made when emotional eating, while still feelings of stress remain unresolved.
Structure is an integral part of addiction recovery, and this practice is applicable to practicing healthy eating as well. It is common to eat sporadically and consume unbalanced meals when eating to fulfill feelings. These maladaptive behaviours can impact the way our brain responds to foods, which affect ones mental and physical health.
So what does balanced and structured eating look like? While there is no ‘right’ way of healthy eating, there are many principles that we can practice that allow us to enjoy food in moderation.
Balancing each meal with a good source of grain/starch, protein and vegetable/fruit allow us to get the necessary nutrients from our food. Most ‘comfort’ meals are high in carbohydrates and fat, but often lack fiber or protein. Each macronutrient has its role within our body.
Carbohydrates provide us with immediate energy, and also supply us with many vitamins and minerals.
Protein helps our body repair damage and produces certain neurotransmitters.
Polyunsaturated fats play a role in heart health, cognition as well as producing feelings of fullness and satiety. These are a few examples of the importance of including balanced meals in overall health.
2. Timing and Eating
While balanced meals are important, another component of structured eating is timing. Abstaining from food for long periods of time can trigger negative feelings such as anxiety, irritability and fatigue. Small snacks are beneficial, as they allow us to refuel our body before the onset of those negative symptoms. It can also deter us from impulsive eating or acting on food cravings, as we feel satisfied and full. Three meals and three snacks a day provide us with long lasting energy throughout the day, and promote optimism, concentration and alertness. Establishing structure in one’s meal plan is beneficial in creating a healthy relationship with food, as well as improving one’s overall mental and physical health.
3. Habit & Learned Behaviours
While practicing balance and moderation are an important part of breaking the cycle of emotional eating, there are other components that lead one to rely on external sources of pleasure in times of need. Habit and learned behaviours also factor into how we utilize food during these periods. Identifying triggers can help to determine the underlying cause of stress. Boredom, stress and loneliness are often prime times when food can be an outlet for distracting one from these negative emotions.
Being able to recognize these triggers and time frames in the moment can help us make healthier choices including balance and moderation, seeking support and utilizing healthy coping mechanisms.
How to Break the Cycle of Emotional Eating
If you would like to learn more about emotional eating, or you need help, talk to your family doctor who can refer you to a nutritionist/ dietitian. Here are some places, you can visit too:
- Heart & Stroke Foundation: https://www.heartandstroke.com/site/apps/nlnet/content2.aspx?c=ikIQLcMWJtE&b=4016859&ct=12044291
- Dietitians of Canada: https://www.dietitians.ca/
- Canadian Diabetes Association- The Plate Method:https://www.diabetes.ca/diabetes-and-you/healthy-living-resources/diet-nutrition/basic-meal-planning
If you or someone you know is struggling with overeating, please call Bellwood to speak to one of our counsellors to get help: 1-800-387-6198
How Sugar Affects the Brain: Video Highlights Similar Effects Between Drugs & Sugar
Food is one of our primary sources of pleasure, and critical to our survival. In a healthy reward pathway of the brain, food is a natural stimulus that produces feelings of pleasure from the release of dopamine. This gratifying feeling makes this activity worthy of repeating, as we want to experience it again. However, not all foods have the same effect on the brains’ reward system. So why do certain foods activate the brains’ reward system more than others? Sugar, salt and fat are three substances that ‘hijack’ the brains’ reward system, by releasing a burst of dopamine, similar to the effects of drugs and alcohol. As more research emerges, we gain knowledge about how a diet of large portions of refined and processed foods affect the way our brain responds to food. Some individuals develop a dependence on these foods to feel happy and satisfied, and eventually develop a tolerance by needing more of these ‘addictive’ foods to experience feelings of pleasure. Dependence and tolerance are fused with the fundamentals of addiction, reinforcing the link between food and addiction. This video from the TED Talks series highlights how foods high in sugar can have a similar effect on the brain as drugs, alcohol and other addictive behaviours.
Carbohydrates: The Simple and Complex Truth
Written by: Natalie Tilluckdharry
According to Health Canada, ‘carbohydrates are the body’s most important source of energy’. However, it is one of the most widely criticized nutrients in food. Following the influx of popularized ‘low carb’ diets in the 1990’s, carbohydrates have taken the blame for obesity and have since held a negative connotation in the minds of many. In addiction and recovery, carbohydrates play a role in energy levels, anxiety, fatigue and cravings. Certain carbohydrates can help to improve these symptoms in those recovering from drugs, alcohol and food addiction.
The Basics of Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients our body relies on to produce energy. It is our body’s primary source of energy, as carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. Our body runs on glucose, which is converted in the mitochondria to usable energy called ATP.
However, not all carbohydrates are created equally. They are comprised of two groups: simple and complex carbohydrates.
- Chocolate, candy, soda etc.
Simple carbohydrates are broken down and absorbed quickly. Most of these products are refined, and limited in vitamins, minerals or fibre. The enzymes in our body easily digest them, and can trigger a spike in insulin, creating a ‘sugar crash’. Simple carbohydrates begin to break down into smaller components as they enter our mouth, with the help of enzymes in our saliva. Some of the glucose from these simple carbohydrates is absorbed sublingually (beneath the tongue) and our blood glucose levels begin to rise. The body further breaks down the simple carbohydrates in the stomach, and the remaining glucose is absorbed within the small intestines into the bloodstream, raising blood glucose levels. This creates a burst in energy levels, which is short lived. The body reacts to this sudden rise in blood glucose by signalling the pancreas to secrete insulin – a hormone that regulates the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream. As insulin is released, it initiates glucose uptake, creating a sudden drop in blood glucose. This ‘sugar crash’ has a major effect on our physical and mental state.
Effects of Simple Carbohydrates
The swift changes in blood glucose cause feelings of highs and lows from jitteriness and excitability to anxiety, fatigue and mood swings. This is a concern for those in recovery from drugs and alcohol. In early recovery, when symptoms of low mood and anxiety are prevalent, foods rich in simple carbohydrates can amplify these feelings. Also, many people afflicted with addiction also suffer with concurrent mental health disorders including depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. While foods high in simple carbohydrates are often sought out for comfort or to satisfy sugar cravings, too much can create negative consequences in ones’ recovery by altering mood and emotions. So should addicts avoid simple carbohydrates altogether? Not at all. Indulging in these foods is part of healthy eating when used in moderation as part of a balanced diet.
- Cereals (bran, oats, etc.)
- Starches (i.e. potatoes)
Complex carbohydrates are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fibre, which is not digested or absorbed by our body, slows down the rate of absorption of glucose and does not create the highs and lows as mentioned above. As glucose is slowly absorbed in the small intestines, the demand on the pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin is less significant. This creates a slow and steady rise in blood glucose without the ‘crash’, and provides long lasting energy. Fibre also helps reduce risk of heart disease, elevated cholesterol, and improves gastrointestinal health, which is often compromised in many addicts. Grain products that are refined during the manufacturing process such as white rice and pasta lose the outer layer of the grain, which contains much of its nutritional value. However most products are now fortified, meaning foods are enriched with extra micronutrients. Although there is a difference in quality of white versus whole grain products, they both offer various health benefits and importance in our diet. Health Canada recommends making half of daily grain products as ‘whole grain’.
Effects of Complex Carbohydrates
Various vitamins and minerals are found in complex carbohydrates. For example, B vitamins are found in grain products, fruits and vegetables. B vitamins function in the production of energy, the central nervous system and synthesis of neurotransmitters. We require certain amounts of these vitamins in order for our body to carry out these essential roles. During the addiction, when drugs and alcohol are abused, healthy eating is often not practised. Many addicts consume a diet low in complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, creating inadequate levels of these vitamins – also known as insufficiencies. This affects the numerous roles that these vitamins perform, causing serious damage affecting the nervous system and cognition. In recovery from addiction, complex carbohydrates help to stabilize energy levels, restore vitamin and mineral functions within the body and reverse the damage incurred from the effects of the addictive substance.
Carbohydrates, like all foods have a place in healthy eating. The simple negative association that has been developed with this entire group of food means we deprive ourselves of the many health benefits they offer. Canada’s Food Guide for Healthy Eating recommends that adults consume 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, in addition to 6-8 servings of grains a day. These amounts help us meet our needs for vitamins, minerals and nutrients and contribute to your overall health and vitality (Health Canada, 2011). In recovery, choosing the right foods can help our bodies heal and continue to live a sober life.
For more information on recommendations for grains, fruits and vegetables, go to Health Canada’s Healthy Food Guide for Eating:
In the next article, we will explore how carbohydrates influence emotional eating and why food can become an addiction.
The Power of Protein in Addiction Recovery – Part 2
The foods we eat play a powerful role in the way we think, act, and feel. For example, foods high in refined sugar can cause a burst of energy followed by a crash. Or a large meal high in carbohydrates can make you feel tired and relaxed. Fasting or abstaining from food for long periods can create changes in your mood and energy levels, causing irritability and even depressive symptoms. These choices influence one key area that not only controls our feelings but also our entire body – the brain.
Protein and Neurotransmitters
Neurotransmitters are the brain chemicals that send information to the rest of our body. Different neurotransmitters produce different effects. Some make us feel happy and energized, while others make us feel calm and optimistic.
When we ingest proteins, they are broken down into amino acids during the process of digestion. These amino acids help the neurons in our brain manufacture neurotransmitters that make us feel the way we do. Tyrosine and tryptophan are two of the main amino acids, which respectively support the production of dopamine and serotonin.
Tyrosine and Dopamine in Addiction
Dopamine is often called the ‘pleasure molecule’, and is associated with the reward center of the brain. Many natural activities such as eating and sex trigger the release of dopamine, creating that ‘pleasurable’ feeling. Our brain registers that activity as a reward, and something we want to do again as it was enjoyable – a reward motivated behaviour.
Drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling and even food work in this same reward system, however to a greater effect. They over stimulate the production of dopamine, flooding the brain with its release, and causing a high. This feeling of euphoria is one that cannot be obtained with natural dopamine releasing activities. Once the addictive substance is no longer present, studies show that during withdrawal these levels of dopamine diminish. This often creates a yearning to go back to the behaviour that produced the high, and is in part what fuels drug seeking behaviour.
Tyrosine is an amino acid found in many high protein foods, such as: chicken, turkey, soy products, cheese, milk, nuts and seeds. Tyrosine is a precursor to the production of dopamine. In recovery, dopamine levels are diminished, and off balanced due to the ‘habit’ of obtaining large amounts of dopamine from the addictive substance. Low levels of dopamine could contribute to low mood, fatigue, and cravings for the drug of choice. Dopamine also plays a role in helping with concentration and alertness – both of which are beneficial for all. Restoring the natural balance and production of dopamine is an important step in addiction recovery.
Incorporating foods that are high in protein throughout the day helps to slowly stabilize the production of dopamine in recovering addicts. However, not all dietary tyrosine consumed is used by the brain to produce neurotransmitters. There are many other functions for this amino acid in our body, and therefore having sufficient amounts to supply all functions is important. Due to the compromised diet of those with addiction, it is beneficial in early recovery to incorporate protein at all three meals and three snacks to maximize the potential effects. Eating high protein meals supports stable energy levels and helps reduce cravings for the addictive substance, by increasing the presence of dopamine in the body through natural means.
Tryptophan and Serotonin in Addiction
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter that is often associated with feelings of happiness, optimism and overall well being. It also is a key player in regulating mood, sleep and appetite. These three areas are often compromised due to the addiction, and could be linked to low levels of serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with mood disorders and depression. Some research suggests that a well balanced diet including carbohydrates and protein can lessen depressive symptoms in those with depression.
Tryptophan is a precursor in the production of serotonin. Tryptophan is found in high protein foods such as meat, eggs, fish, cheese and legumes. Similar to dopamine, the use of addictive substances can reduce the production and release of serotonin. Research shows lower levels of serotonin in alcoholics. In withdrawal, serotonin levels may be low, contributing to low mood, trouble sleeping, low appetite and cravings for sweets. These symptoms are hardly conducive for a successful recovery.
While dietary tryptophan can increase the levels of serotonin within the brain, it does not work as an antidepressant. Some evidence shows a diet high in tryptophan can reduce depressive symptoms in those with mild to moderate depression. In healthy individuals, it can improve mood, sleep and appetite.
Tryptophan is one of the least abundant amino acids. Since it uses the same mode of transport as other amino acids, it must compete to cross the blood-brain barrier. However, adding a carbohydrate in addition to a tryptophan rich protein may help to beat the competition. When carbohydrates are present, insulin is released and redirects the other nutrients to muscle stores. This increases the ratio of tryptophan, allowing it to cross the blood brain barrier, and in turn convert to serotonin.
Getting enough protein throughout the day helps to support the production of serotonin. In early recovery, this is beneficial as it helps to decrease depressive symptoms. A balanced meal or snack, consisting of protein and carbohydrate may maximize the outcome of serotonin production. These meals will make you feel relaxed, calm, and promote a feeling of well-being.
Addiction Recovery and Protein
Drug and alcohol abuse creates a magnitude of effects creating social, mental and physical health consequences. These addictive substances hijack the neurotransmitters responsible for our every thought and feeling. In recovery, restoring the normal production and balance of the many neurotransmitters present can help to lessen symptoms experienced, including cravings for the drug of choice.
While there are many factors which impacts how we feel, act and think – nutrition undeniably plays an integral role. A well balanced diet, including protein, carbohydrates and fat works to alleviate these symptoms, and promotes a healthy recovery. In recovery from addiction, balance and moderation is key and this philosophy applies to nutrition as well.
The Power of Protein in Addiction Recovery
Does the intake of protein play a role in addiction recovery?
With high protein diets on the rise, the image of body builders and protein supplements may be your first thought when you question the power of protein. Apart from this population who require higher amounts of protein, it is also an important dietary component for those recovering from addiction.
Poor eating patterns combined with the use of drugs and alcohol can create mental, social and physical damage. Understanding this negative impact of the addiction is important, as well as identifying how to achieve optimal health in recovery. In this blog, we will look at the physical health problems that addiction creates, and how protein works to repair these issues.
The role of protein in the body
Protein, one of six essential nutrients in food, is partially responsible for the structure of all cells, tissues and organs in our body. They are broken down into amino acids, which help in the process of replacing and regenerating all cells. There is no doubt that protein plays a vital role in sustaining life.
Dietary sources of protein
So where do we find it? Foods high in protein include:
- Meat (poultry, red meat, and seafood)
- Legumes (dry beans and peas)
- Dairy (milk, cheese and yogurt)
- Soy and tofu
- Nuts and seeds
- Some grains (quinoa, whole grains etc.)
How much protein do we need?
On average, most Canadians get enough protein from their diet. In fact, Western culture tends to have too much protein in our diet, exceeding the daily recommendations. Recommendations for dietary protein are based on weight and physical activity levels. Adults should aim to consume approximately 0.8g of protein per kilogram of weight. (Weight in kg x 0.8g/kg = protein intake in g).
However when looking at the protein and food intake of someone suffering from an addiction, their intake falls below the average Canadian. When drugs or alcohol are present in ones’ life, other areas fall short – and nutrition is no exception.
Repair for recovery
Since drugs and alcohol have a harmful effect on many metabolic processes, various organs and systems are greatly affected and need repair in addiction recovery.
Protein and the digestive system
The gastrointestinal tract (GIT), also known as the digestive system is one area that is affected by addiction. The GIT transports food to the stomach to be broken down, and into the small intestines where most nutrients are absorbed. The inner part of the GIT is lined with a thin layer of mucous, which protects the outer layers of cells, muscle, blood vessels and nerves.
Malabsorption, an abnormality causing poor nutrient absorption, can occur in addicts. Chronic alcohol use is one of the major causes of a folate deficiency, as it impairs the uptake of folate in the intestines. Most alcoholics have diets that are limited in many nutrients, including folate. Folate deficiencies alter the intestines normal physiological role of absorbing other vitamins and minerals. Another characteristic of malabsorption is diarrhea, which accelerates the excretion of nutrients and limits their absorption. This combination of factors culminates to malabsorption, which eventually leads to malnutrition. Sobriety is key in helping reverse these damages in the gastrointestinal tract, as the toxic effect of alcohol causes this chain reaction. In addition, providing extra nourishment, from protein can help to accelerate the recovery from the effects of malabsorption.
A common, yet painful occurrence in alcoholism is gastroesophageal reflux or heartburn. Stomach acid is very potent, and can dissolve a nail! Alcohol relaxes the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle that separates the esophagus and the stomach. When relaxed, stomach acid rises up into the esophagus. In severe alcoholism, chronic alcohol use can create tears in the esophagus causing esophageal varicosities. In addition, alcohol causes direct damage to the esophageal mucosa (a thin protective layer of mucous in the gastrointestinal tract). As with all damage in the body, protein is an important element of the healing process.
Protein and muscle
As discussed in my previous blog ‘Food Matters’, food and nutrition is not a high priority for most addicts. Preparing meals is a tedious task, and time consuming. Full meals can interfere with the ‘high’, and cause unpleasant side effects when mixed with alcohol or drugs. When using drugs or alcohol, appetite is suppressed and most addicts skip at least one meal a day. Others can go for hours to days without eating. Without food, the source of fuel for our body is limited, and our body relies on stored energy supplies to sustain energy. In short term starvation, the body relies on glycogen stores, which are located in our muscles and liver. When addicts restrict their food intake and ‘starve’ their bodies, they continuously exhaust glycogen stores which deplete and reduces lean muscle mass. This is one of the major causes of weight loss during the addiction. In recovery, it is important to rebuild strength and muscle, to support a healthy lifestyle for recovery. Protein and exercise are essential in preserving and rebuilding muscle mass, as well as increasing energy levels in recovery.
Protein in recovery
Proteins are involved in virtually every function our body carries out. When dietary protein is not sufficient to carry out all these activities, they run less efficiently. For this reason amongst others, protein is needed in sufficient amounts – for our body to function at its optimal level.
Addicts are not the average healthy Canadian. With various health problems arising from alcohol and drug abuse, these need to be addressed during recovery. This usually involves higher requirements for certain nutrients, including protein. While there are no set recommendations for protein in addicts, the main focus we encourage for our clients at Bellwood is incorporating protein rich foods (as mentioned above) at all three meals and three snacks. This allows our clients to achieve the recommended daily amount of protein, as it is more available from better food choices and a structured meal plan. Sobriety itself plays a key role, as interference from drugs or alcohol is no longer a deterrent on the body.
Our clients who integrate high protein foods regularly throughout the day see the benefits in their overall health. Some areas that benefit are increased energy levels, improved strength, better digestion and improvement in liver function. With the power of protein, the body begins to heal and repair – a necessity on the road to recovery.
In Power of Protein in Addiction Recovery – Part 2, we will talk about how protein can improve your mood, and the role it has in the brain chemistry of an addict.
Food Matters in Recovery
We all lead pretty busy lifestyles in this day and age. We juggle work, family, errands and a long ‘to-do’ list. Sometimes there are not enough hours in the day to do it all. So it’s no surprise that we start to cut corners in some areas of our lives. Preparing breakfast seems like an impossible task when running out the door to be on time for work or dropping the kids to school. We may work through our lunch to meet deadlines. Before you know it, it’s been hours since your last meal. How do you feel when you’ve gone for a long period of time without eating? Fatigued, irritable, anxious, unable to focus or concentrate with that searing headache?
What would you turn to, to remedy those symptoms? To escape, and alleviate those feelings? Some may recognize the need to eat. Some would make a trip to the vending machine for a quick burst of energy. However, when asking our clients at Bellwood who are afflicted with addiction, the answer is most often drugs or alcohol.
The symptoms mentioned above arise due to internal hunger cues – multiple physiological responses including lowered blood glucose, prompting you to refuel. These symptoms are quite similar to a trigger for the addictive behaviour or substance. Prolonged periods of semi-starvation can cause emotional distress and depression, leading to poor decision-making. Many addicts may misinterpret these signs. They may not identify that these symptoms arise because they have not eaten for a long period, and their body is running low on energy. Instead, they often resort to their drug of choice out of habit and as a coping mechanism, to escape these negative feelings and for symptom relief. This is a critical time when one is vulnerable in their recovery.
This scenario is one familiar to us all, not just addicts. However, it is a good example of the importance of remaining mindful of nutrition in recovery. Proper nutrition and creating healthy eating patterns is an important tool in recovery, which helps to protect both physical and mental health.
It is common that most addicts have poor eating habits during the addiction. This can create vitamin, mineral and protein insufficiencies, which need to be corrected in recovery to ensure optimal health. For our recovering clients at Bellwood, we recommend following a meal plan of three meals, and two to three snacks a day. This allows the body to maintain energy levels throughout the day, preventing those dips in blood glucose linked with making poor decisions and potential for relapse. Also, incorporating high protein foods throughout the day supports the synthesis of the neurotransmitters norepinepherine, serotonin and dopamine. These are the brain chemicals which promotes a calming effect, optimism, concentration and alertness – all of which we strive for in healthy living.
Eating a variety of foods, at regular intervals during the day can help to reintroduce neglected nutrients, and allows the body to heal and repair some of the physical damage incurred from the addiction. This can include damage to the liver, gastrointestinal tract as well as muscle atrophy.
During the addiction, food is not always a top priority. It can be avoided for hours to days when using drugs or alcohol. However in sober living, maintaining regular eating patterns is an essential component in fuelling ones’ mind, body and overall well-being.