By Caroline Shannon-Karasik
Adequate nutrition, a vital component in helping someone recover from addiction, is often overlooked, says Jen Flachbart, a registered dietitian and owner of New Jersey-based Plant Roots Nutrition. But it shouldn’t be. Experts say less sugar, more fiber, and ditching caffeine may help with the recovery process.
“In the recovery process, addicts are encouraged to regain weight, but generally not given recommendations on how to do so in a healthy manner. This can lead to poor eating habits, excessive weight gain, and sometimes an increase in sugar intake,” says Flachbart.
A vegetarian lifestyle gave Ken Immer, a recovering crystal meth user and self-described heavy drinker, the final push he needed to stick to his sobriety in 2004. Immer had begun a yoga teacher training program that required him to follow a vegetarian diet. As a chef, he began to experiment in the kitchen. It was then that he saw the difference a clean diet could make in his healing process.
When Immer switched to a cleaner lifestyle, he “started seeing big results happen, like more energy, weight loss, and just a cleaner general well-being feeling.”
Dietary Changes for Addiction Recovery
If you’re wondering what dietary changes someone recovering from addiction should make, Claudia Matles, a New York-based certified holistic nutrition counselor, offers a list of substitutions she requests her clients undertake:
Eat less sugar. Avoiding sweetened foods—anything with added sugar counts—will help stabilize blood sugar levels, which will help with mood swings, anxiety, and depression.
Step away from the coffee. Caffeine can exacerbate insomnia and anxiety, which are especially prevalent in early sobriety.
Eliminate processed foods. Liver repair is critical in early sobriety, so stay away from processed foods with artificial ingredients.
Eat more protein. The amino acids in proteins serve as building blocks for neurotransmitters, which are often lacking in addicts. Try tempeh, soybeans and lentils.
Add more fiber to meals. Matles says fiber-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables, help begin to heal the gastrointestinal system.
Consume fewer refined carbohydrates. Instead choose whole grains, like barley, oats, and brown rice.
Fall in love with healthy fats. Good fats (olive oil, flaxseed oil, omega-3s) help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Try fatty fish, nuts, and flax seeds.
“The essence of recovery is changing negative behaviors into positive ones. All addicts in active use of alcohol and drugs are malnourished, so good nutrition will help rejuvenate them to better physical, as well as spiritual, health,” says Matles.
It’s All About Balance
Immer says “cleaning things up” led him to ditch the party scene and maintain his healthy recovery diet. But Immer suggests those in recovery shouldn’t dive in with both feet. Instead he advises that they start small by adding nutrient density to the foods they’re already eating.
He suggests that a person in recovery replace one item they eat often with a natural version. A good place to start is with pasta, bread, meet and canned goods, as it’s easy to find more wholesome versions of these foods. He suggests looking for options without preservatives, refined carbohydrates, added sugars, and/or hormones and antibiotics.
“Balance is the most important thing, but [eating healthy] can’t be something that requires a huge behavioral shift because the recovery process is already very difficult and it can add more stress,” Immer says. “Making small changes one at a time is more important than trying to choose the ‘perfect’ diet.”
Immer is living proof that a healthy lifestyle can help those recovering from addiction. His plant-based lifestyle has expanded; he now uses natural products (toothpaste, deodorant, soaps, and detergents) to reduce his exposure to toxic chemicals. Today, Immer is a marathon swimmer and the president and chief culinary officer at Culinary Health Solutions.