Fuel your Recovery with Nourishing Eating Habits

Mary Bamford RD, MBA, BSc (Clinical Nutrition), Registered Dietitian

You can nourish your body in ways that support both your immediate and long-term recovery with addiction. I invite you to consider the helpful eating habits below.  Consider what are you are doing well already and what you can build on to support your recovery?

Five Nourishing Habits in Addiction Recovery

1. Eat three regular meals each day

Food is fuel for your body and brain. It is important to fuel your body consistently throughout the day because it helps keep your brain and your mood calm. 

When cars run out of gas, they stop. When humans run out of fuel, they keep moving but becomes hungry and angry, “hangry”. Allowing yourself to get hangry nudges the reward centre of the brain to have self-doubt, negative thoughts, anxiety and possibly cravings. This is unnecessary stress in a person with a history of addiction.

2. Choose foods that your great-grandparents recognize as food.

Eat mostly fresh food that your great-grandparents recognized because they grew and raised that kind of food. There were no ingredients they could not pronounce and no ingredients they could not recognize. That leaves simple, delicious foods.

3. Plan your Weekly Menu

Make a weekly plan for meals, grocery shopping and cooking to make your overall pattern of eating nourishing. You have many choices. To be healthy you can choose Mediterranean, Nordic, Okinawan, Vegetarian, Vegan, Paleo and many other traditional and modern eating patterns. Choose a pattern that you enjoy and can sustain.

Regardless of the pattern you choose, for each meal, plan to have foods providing protein, fat and vegetables or fruit.  Here are some helpful guidelines:

  • For protein choose foods such as fish, meat, poultry, eggs, yogurt, cheese and “legumes” (such as kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans and tofu). Minimally processed protein foods are excellent sources of vitamins and minerals in addition to protein and often fat. 
For optimal health:

    • Choose fish at least twice per week;
    • Choose legumes at least three times per week.
  • Yes, some fats are healthy.  The myths that started in the 1970s that dietary fat and cholesterol cause heart disease and are “bad” are fully de-bunked by good science.  Include foods containing fat at every meal such as avocado, nuts, seeds, olive oil, real mayonnaise made with olive oil, coconut, coconut oil and butter.  Also choose dairy products that contain some fat.  No need for fat-free.
For optimal health:

    • Choose a handful of nuts or seeds at least 5 times per week;
    • Avoid margarine and commercial trans fats found in ultra-processed foods.
  • Vegetables and fruits are filling, flavourful and rich in many essential nutrients. Make at least half your plate at every meal vegetables or fruit.  Have fun with colours.  Include reds, purples, oranges, yellows, greens and white. Dark green vegetables and berries are particularly rich in nutrients.  
For optimal health:

    • Make a habit of having fruit with breakfast and vegetables as part of both lunch and dinner;
    • Choose a dark green vegetable (such as spinach, broccoli or salad greens) at least five times per week;
    • Choose berries at least 3 times per week.
  • Grains are not essential. It is a myth that whole grains are loaded with nutrition. While it is true that whole grains and “entire” grains are vastly superior to refined grains, they are not a nutrition powerhouse. Grains have small doses of some nutrients and can be part of a healthy diet grains but are not necessary for optimal health. 
If you choose to eat grains, choose small portions:

  • For women, ½ to ¾ cup of cooked ‘entire grain’ is plenty at a meal  
  • For men, ½ to 1½ cups cooked ‘entire grain’ is plenty at a meal

If you are still hungry with no grains or a smaller portion, consider adding more vegetables or fats (nuts, cheese, oil, butter, cream, etc.) to your meals.

Entire grains are the best form of grains to eat. Entire grains include brown rice, steel cut oats, quinoa, wheat berries, and pot barley. Whole grains are a reasonable alternate to entire grains when you are pressed for preparation time. Whole grains include whole grain pasta, whole grain breads, rolled oats, quick oats.  

  • Dessert twice per week is “moderate” or “reasonable”.  The most studied dietary pattern is the Mediterranean. In the Mediterranean pattern, choosing desserts, sweets or treats twice per week is moderate. That means in the context of an overall healthy diet, this amount of dessert does not reduce health. The portion size of this moderate dessert provides about 200 to 300 calories.

“Desserts” are the foods not mentioned above and include cakes, pastries, ice cream, potato chips, deep fried foods, soda pop, sweetened beverages, sugar, corn syrup, white bread, white rice, etc.

An alternate evidence-based guideline for desserts and sweets comes from the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA recommends the maximum amount of added sugars one should eat in a day. For women it is 100 calories per day (25 grams or 6 teaspoons). For men it is 150 calories per day (37.5 grams or 9 teaspoons).

This is a reasonable amount of dessert or sugar for a “normal eater”.  This does not apply to somebody who eats sweets compulsively or addictively. 

  1.  All of us recovering from addiction need to avoid using sugar or ultra-processed foods as a coping or recovery tool when we are triggered to use our drug of choice.

A brain that has had an addiction to one substance, can more easily substitute another substance to add a second addiction. 

Since sugar is a substance that can be addictive in its own right and abuse of sugar has many negative health consequences (such as weight gain, metabolic syndrome, diabetes and heart disease), it is not a good substitute for alcohol or any other drug of choice.  

Using sugar to help you recover or manage cravings can eventually trigger a relapse of your drug of choice or become a second substance addiction on its own.

At the time the Big Book was written, sugar and ultra-processed foods were not readily available and they regular consumption was not part of “normal” culture.  If I could make just one edit to the Big Book, I would delete the suggestion to use sugar as a substitute for alcohol.  

5. If you have food addiction, fully abstain from sugar, ultra-processed foods and your own addictive trigger foods.

For people addicted to “certain foods”, moderation is a “harm reduction” treatment and not effective for long-term recovery. Abstinence creates a peaceful life and recovery.

Three Rules of Thumb in the Kitchen

To modify your favourite recipes:

  1. Use minimally processed fresh or frozen meats, vegetables and fruits;
  2. Use healthy fats and oils;  
    • Choose olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, coconut, butter and cream
    • Avoid vegetable shortening, margarine and ultra-processed oils such as canola and corn  
  3. Use enough fat in cooking to make the taste and texture of your food delicious;  
    • Many recipes from the 1980s are reduced in fat and flavour (with added sugar or starch to attempt to improve texture).

About the Authors

Contributors to Renascent’s Blog share their stories of addiction and recovery and/or their professional expertise.