Connection Between Nutrition and Addiction Recovery
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Nutrition and Recovery

Your body is a temple. You are what you eat. Garbage in, garbage out.

We grow up with these catchphrases, and we know they all mean the same thing. We must eat nutritious meals regularly to stay healthy.

But these guidelines — like so many others — can pale in importance as your addiction deepens. You might spend an hour finding, preparing, and injecting drugs. You might spend only 10 minutes gobbling a package of chips and slurping down a soda.

Poor nutrition can reinforce your addiction, researchers say. That’s why many rehab programs are adding dietary guidance, including private chefs, to the vital services they offer.

healthy food

How Are Addiction and Nutrition Connected?

Addiction is defined as compulsive drug use driven by chemical changes within the brain. It’s a disease of chemistry, but it can have a big impact on the health of the rest of your body as you prioritize drugs over food.

Malnutrition and addiction often go hand in hand, researchers say. In a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that about 74 percent of people with drug addiction also had clinically significant malnutrition.

The reasons for that malnutrition can vary. You may share an addiction with someone else, but that doesn’t mean everything about the two of you is exactly the same. Even so, researchers suggest that many people with addiction have the same habits concerning food.

In a study in BMC Public Health, researchers found that more than half of people with addictions didn’t have enough to eat due to a lack of funds, and about 60 percent didn’t eat the quality of food they wanted to due to money.

Does this sound familiar? It’s easy to understand why an addiction can zap your grocery budget. In addition to the money you’ll spend on substances, you also have expenses related to:

  • Method of delivery. Needles, tourniquets, and cook pots are just some of the tools you’ll need to prep injectable drugs.
  • Transportation. If you can’t get your drugs close to home, you’ll need to find money to travel to them, or you’ll pay for shipping to bring them to you.
  • Legal issues. Addictions spark arrests, and you might need a lawyer to get out of trouble.
  • Bribes. Is your dealer threatening to turn you in? Will giving another addict a hit keep them from talking? These expenses can add up.

While addiction expenses clearly have an impact on healthy eating, some drugs can also shift the way you eat. Researchers say, for example, that drugs like heroin can spark a craving for sweet foods. In early recovery, that craving for sweetness can stick with you and keep you from eating healthy foods your body needs.

Why Does Nutrition Matter in Recovery?

The goal of rehab is to help you get sober and stay that way. Talk therapies can let you dig into the roots of your substance abuse habit, but research suggests that your body also needs help if you hope to maintain that recovery.

The American Dietetic Association says, for example, that some forms of nutrient deficiency lead to issues like:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Lack of energy

Any or all of those symptoms can leave you craving the next hit of drugs. Since those feelings begin in the body, they can be hard for the mind to overcome.

Other forms of malnutrition can leave you feeling irrational, distracted, and confused. Long-term alcoholism, for example, can lead to vitamin B deficiencies that trigger Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. You won’t be able to focus on your therapy or develop new habits because you’ll be too distracted by poor health.

Rehab can also allow you to get reconnected with life’s simple pleasures. You may not achieve a blasting high from eating a perfectly ripe peach, for example, but it might be a moment of sweetness that brings you back to your childhood. That memory could boost your mood for a moment or two. Since it comes without a hit of drugs, that could be very important for you.

woman at sunset with birds

How Can Treatment Help?

Addiction can strip away some of the skills and habits that support healthy eating. In early recovery, you might not be strong enough to develop and maintain a healthy diet. Your rehab program can help.

For many people with addiction, signals involving hunger and drug cravings are crossed in the brain. Your stomach sends a message your mind misunderstands, and that has you heading to your dealer rather than to the refrigerator.

Rehab programs provide meals and snacks on a regular, predictable schedule so you can rediscover those signals. An hour before mealtime when you feel that twinge in your tummy, you’ll know it’s caused by hunger. When you feel that tingle after you’re back home, you’ll know just what it means and what to do about it.

The food you’ll see on your plate will also be tailored for your specific dietary needs. Many facilities have a private chef on hand. Before you enroll in the program, you’ll talk with your treatment team about your:

  • Health history. Diabetes, celiac disease, and lactose intolerance could all spark a shift in your meal plan.
  • Drugs of choice. Different substances are linked to different health issues. Your team will need to know what you took and how long your habit lasted.
  • Favorite foods. We all have meals we love, and those comfort foods can pull us through a dark time. Your chef may have ways to make your favorite foods healthier for you to eat.
  • Cooking habits. Do you consider yourself a gourmet chef, or do you need to pick up a few kitchen skills? This could come into play later.

In most programs, you’ll eat your meals at scheduled times in the company of others in the program. But when your course of treatment is complete, you’ll need to head home and care for your own body. Your rehab program and private chef can help with that too.

Researchers say it’s critical for people in rehab to learn how to plan, prepare, and store food. That way, you’ll know what to do to maintain the gains you’ve made in rehab when you’ve moved back to your community at home. Your chef can help with that, or you might work with a dietitian or doctor on a meal plan that’s right for you.

Pairing nutrition counseling with addiction care offers you the best road to recovery. And you just might rediscover a love of food that you lost during your battle with addiction. Your meals can become your best defense against a return to drug use, and isn’t relapse prevention the goal of any program?

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