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Sharp Health News

The role of nutrition in addiction recovery

April 29, 2021

Christine Emerson is a clinical dietitian at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and Sharp McDonald Center.

Food is vital to supporting the body and maintaining health, whether a person is recovering from a cold or from something more serious, including alcohol and substance abuse.

According to Christine Emerson, clinical dietitian at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital and Sharp McDonald Center, nutrition is an essential aspect of substance abuse recovery. This involves learning and building healthy eating habits to assist with recovery to avoid unhelpful diet habits that are formed well before entering recovery.

“Typically, people who heavily use alcohol or abuse other substances, have a decreased appetite and a limited intake of balanced meals,” says Emerson. “This can sometimes go on for months to years, depleting micronutrients, muscle and fat in the body, often leaving new patients underweight or malnourished when they enter treatment.”

Having adequate energy and micronutrients can help improve the physical and mental well-being of people in recovery.

“Patients often face many psychological and emotional challenges when they abuse substances and during recovery,” says Emerson. “The regular intake of balanced meals helps stabilize blood sugar throughout the day and improves mood stability. This in turn can impact decision-making and increase the likelihood of a successful recovery.”

Emerson shares 3 nutrition tips for people recovering from alcohol or substance abuse.

1. Avoid skipping meals.
Your body can only absorb a certain amount of nutrients at once. Therefore, in order to replace nutrients depleted during times of substance use, it is important to consume balanced meals throughout the day.

Regular meal and snack intake helps your body maintain blood sugar (glucose) levels. This provides energy and mood stability to participate in groups, therapy and other parts of recovery programs.

2. Eat more protein, complex carbohydrates and dietary fiber.
Complex carbohydrates like whole grains provide slower and more consistent energy release compared to refined carbohydrates. Adding protein, fruits and vegetables creates a more balanced meal and provides essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals.

Fiber can be found in fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and whole grains. Some types of dietary fiber are also good sources of prebiotics, which can help restore healthy gut flora and function after prolonged periods of poor nutrition. In addition to beans and whole grains, other good prebiotic foods are garlic, bananas, onions and asparagus.

3. Reduce the risk of dehydration.
Without adequate fluids, our bodies have more difficulty eliminating waste and substances from our bodies. Staying well-hydrated helps improve the detox process and maintain blood pressure, which may reduce dizzy spells. If detox symptoms include vomiting or diarrhea, increased hydration and electrolyte replacement is encouraged.

Maintaining a balanced diet after leaving treatment.
While patients are often provided regular meals and snacks in sober living facilities, they often struggle in planning and preparing regular balanced meals when they return home.

“Some patients try to meal prep for the week, which can be hard to juggle while dealing with sobriety,” says Emerson. “Others fall back into their habit of eating out or skipping meals.”

Some of her diet tips for people heading back into normal life include:

Buy premade, easy-to-assemble or semi-prepared meals.
Make things easier for yourself, especially if you don’t typically cook or have time for it. Good options are having sandwich ingredients, rotisserie chicken, canned tuna, precut fruits and vegetables, and premade salads or soups. Creating a grocery list that includes a variety of food groups can help keep you on track when shopping.

Carry balanced snacks.
Have healthy snacks on hand to avoid long periods of time without eating, which could result in a drop in blood sugar levels and in turn affect your mood. Good options are Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, string cheese, hardboiled eggs, whole-grain crackers, and hummus with fresh vegetables.

Avoid caffeine or sugary beverages.
While it’s OK to include some sweets in your diet, relying on caffeine or sugary drinks to stay energized only provides a quick boost of energy followed by a crash.

“Low blood sugar, dehydration, high levels of caffeine and an unbalanced diet can lead to increased anxiety, irritability, and low mood or energy levels,” says Emerson. “These symptoms can lead to impaired decision-making and lack of impulse control for substance cravings during sobriety.”

Emerson recommends seeking out the assistance of a registered dietitian for support troubleshooting barriers and building healthy habits for people who struggle in eating balanced meals when they return home from treatment.

Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about your or a loved one’s use of substances. Sharp McDonald Center, Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital all provide substance use programs to help define a recovery path that works best for each individual.

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