A Healthy Diet & Nutrition in Recovery

The connection between healthy food and physical and mental health is well documented. In addiction recovery, a healthy diet and consistent nutrition are vital to long-term success.

The Importance of Diet in Recovery

A healthy diet and good nutritional practices are critical components of addiction recovery. Many forms of substance abuse cause psychological dependence and physically damage vital organs. Alcohol abuse, the Biomolecules journal explains, can cause liver failure and permanently damage the pancreas, the heart, and the brain.

Therefore, what a patient eats in their recovery is incredibly important. The right foods and liquids can go a long way in rebuilding damaged organs and stabilizing mental health, and the wrong foods and liquids can worsen a weakened body.
This holds especially true in the aftermath of withdrawal or medical detoxification because the vomiting and diarrhea that take place during the withdrawal process will severely deplete the body of vital nutrients it needs to function properly. A carefully curated diet will help to restore these nutrients. A poor diet, on the other hand, can easily plunge the body into further deterioration.

Helpful Nutritional Content

This is why the food patients receive in recovery are carefully chosen for their nutritional content. Programs ensure that patients receive sufficient:

  • Vitamins
  • Carbohydrates
  • Water
  • Fatty acids
  • Amino acids
  • Protein

Examples of foods with carbohydrates include cereals and whole grain breads. Examples of foods with fatty acids include many kinds of fish (salmon, trout, and tuna) and eggs. Healthline writes that both types of foods have chemical compounds that work on the brain to boost mood. Having the right amount of carbohydrates and fatty acids can change the biochemistry and physiology of the brain, causing positive behavioral changes.

Similarly, depriving a patient of carbohydrates and fatty acids, especially if their brains are already weakened by substance abuse, will likely lead to more regular and significant mood imbalances.

Bad Diets & Lifelong Recovery

Past research has shown that there is a direct connection between chronic alcohol abuse and bad diet, specifically because too much alcohol damages the nutritional intake system, which in turn leads to the consumption of more alcohol. Physically and psychologically, people struggling with alcohol problems become more fixated on drinking and less interested in eating healthily (or even eating at all).

In “How Eating Healthy Can Help You Stay Sober,” The Fix writes that carbohydrates and fatty acids, among other nutrients, boost the body’s immune system, which can be compromised by substance abuse. They can even repair and rebuild organ tissue that is affected by how too much alcohol prevents the metabolization of certain nutrients.

Healthy eating is not only part of a recovery program; it has to be a part of a lifelong plan. Indeed, according to MedlinePlus, people in recovery who fall into poor dietary habits have a higher chance of relapsing than those who make long-lasting positive changes in their food planning.

Cooking Therapy

One way that recovery experts help patients maintain this practice is to help them invest in the creative process of cooking. This is the basis of “cooking therapy,” wherein patients are introduced into the art of making their own food.

It serves as a source of inspiration and self-worth, and, crucially, a counter to boredom. If exercise or yoga doesn’t do it for some patients, they can find what the Wall Street Journal called “a road to mental health through the kitchen.”

Cooking also serves as an opportunity to foster social bonding. The act of cooking together, and then sharing a meal, helps patients learn how to develop and rebuild positive relationships with others who have a stake in their recovery.

Some recovery programs make cooking therapy part of their treatments, encouraging patients to learn to collaborate and work together. Offering and receiving helpful criticism is a key way patients can grow in a healthy and productive way. These are key skills that can make a big difference in a sober, post-treatment life.

Additionally, some patients will gravitate to the repetitiveness of certain cooking techniques and the structure of cooking in general. This can be a source of relaxation and validation, making the entire cooking process a form of therapy.

While some patients will find their calling in exotic dishes, others will derive equal benefit from more simple fare. Even baking can become a therapeutic activity, says Medical Daily, bringing the body and mind to focus on a tangible, beneficial expression, the results of which can be shared with friends and family.

Detoxing & Diet

All this speaks to a key reason why addiction recovery should not be attempted without professional help. A patient who is weakened by the detoxification process (experiencing everything from diarrhea to vomiting, from insomnia to flu-like symptoms) needs careful supervision and treatment to get their strength and health back. Indulging in tasty but unhealthy food can quickly set their progress back. This can either lead to a substance abuse relapse or become a source of addiction in and of itself.

This is why when a patient detoxes at a treatment facility, staff are available to create a precise diet to ensure that the patient stays hydrated and fed with the right amounts of the right food and liquids, so that they are physically ready to continue the rest of the work of recovery.

With their high water content, juices and gelatins are good complements to the healthy food mentioned above. They will resupply vital nutrients lost by withdrawal and stave off the risk of dehydration.

Balancing Nutrition

A key element in how a healthy diet and nutrition can help in addiction recovery is balance. As much as fruits and vegetables provide iron to protect from anemia and other circulation problems, lean protein found in fish and poultry will also help to keep the body’s weight in check.

Foods to avoid are those that are processed or sugary. They may taste good, but they will also delay physical elements of recovery.

Starting the day off with a good diet for substance abuse recovery could include a diet of cereal and eggs. Both contain vitamin B-12, which is necessary for the body to make new cells.

Over the rest of the day, patients can get a boost to their immune system from vitamin A from carrots, milk, and fish. Vitamin D replenishes bones.

Every health benefit that comes from these foods can be strategized to repairing the damage done by an addiction, and the negative health effects and lifestyle that the addiction brings with it. In the long term, a balanced diet like this will help the body continue to grow and heal after detoxification. Some patients might enjoy better health after recovery than they ever had before.

For example, chronic alcohol consumption can drain the body of vital minerals, such as zinc, magnesium, iron, and calcium. A diet of dairy foods and greens will boost calcium production, which rebuilds bone density. Meat adds iron, and the zinc in beef can help with the restoration of the immune system.

Mental Health Benefits

Another element of healthy diet and nutrition is the practice of mindfulness. In the kitchen, people need to be aware of their surroundings and the environment, both for the creation of the food, and for their own safety and the safety of others.

Psychology Today says that while this is good safety practice for people in general, for people in recovery, using this kind of awareness is a form of exercise. The smells, sounds, touch, and tastes involved in preparing food can reduce stress, provide inspiration, and even offer a creative and beneficial outlet for emotions that typically precede relapse (like loneliness, frustration, or even boredom).

Using the aesthetics of diet and nutrition in treatment can appeal to patients who do not respond well to standard therapeutic outreaches. Cooking therapy can be a new opportunity for many people who have been burned out on the typical forms of therapy, or who have simply never thought of taking pride and care in their food before.

Investing in Responsibility

There is also a sense of responsibility that comes with preparing your own food. Speaking to New York Daily News, a psychiatrist explains that patients who invest in cooking develop a greater sense of obligation to look after themselves and to look after others. Even when cooking experiments go wrong, learning from the experience and doing better next time will help patients improve their self-esteem and rebuild their confidence. All of this comes together to create an atmosphere of positive mental health, keeping the threat of relapse at bay.

Cooking doesn’t have to be done alone. If family members are part of the treatment program (through family therapy), then cooking with loved ones can increase familial bonds, and become a source of learning and growth for everyone.

A press release by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that parents who cook with their children not only impress upon their children the importance of a healthy diet, but the practice further fosters positive behaviors and other lifestyle habits, which have important roles to play in addiction recovery.

Overall, prioritizing a healthy diet and good nutrition can go a long way to supporting recovery and promoting overall wellness.

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