Physical health is a big part of enjoying recovery—that is why Recovery Coaches talk about nutrition and healthy eating habits with recovering clients. Many of us quit using because we were sick and tired of being and tired, so if we don’t feel good in recovery then sometimes it doesn’t seem like it’s worth it. Physical wellbeing is such a big part of happiness that if we don’t feel well it doesn’t matter that other parts of our lives are getting better—we still aren’t happy. Eating poorly is a major contributor to anxiety, anger, and depression, and such moods can be a cause of relapse. But you can learn to eat so that you feel good most of the time.
There is something bodily different about people who have had addictions, and we need to eat differently (and better) than those who haven’t had problems with food, alcohol or other drugs. What we eat will make a huge difference in how we feel in recovery, so let’s look at the basics of eating well: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Protein is made up of amino acid chains—and the neurotransmitters that regulate mood in your brain are made of amino acids. When you eat protein you give your brain what it needs every day to make neurotransmitters so you can feel better.
Protein can come from animal or vegetable sources. Try eating protein from a variety of sources to see what your body likes: fish, chicken, red meat, beans and corn bread together, tofu, yoghurt or cottage cheese.
Eating at least eight grams of protein—two eggs, or a piece of meat or tofu the size of a deck of cards—within an hour of getting up is a good habit for recovery. (If you are a big person try eating 12 grams or so.) When you eat protein for breakfast two things happen: your brain gets the amino acids it wants and your blood sugar stabilizes. Both of these make you feel more energetic and ready to handle what the day brings. And then have some more protein at lunch and dinner!
If you feel depressed or anxious try eating more protein more often. Remember, your brain needs a chance to repair itself after anorexia, or using alcohol or other drugs.
We all love our carbs! How much of them you should eat depends on where you get them. Eat all the fresh vegetables you want. Enjoy fresh fruits in moderation, but eat nuts or other proteins with them to steady your blood sugar (more about blood sugar below). If the carbs come from candy or refined or processed foods, think twice (or more!) before you eating them. Most snack foods such as chips, pastries, or breads are highly refined. It’s easy to eat a lot of them because they are sweet or crunchy and salty and come in bite-sized pieces. Refined carbohydrates taste good, but they don’t help your body feel satisfied so it’s easy to overindulge.
Eating carbs by themselves is an easy way to add inches to the waist. Weight gain in recovery is a concern because it is so easy to soothe feelings through eating—and nothing is easier to eat than junk food, which is almost always sugar or carbs. Carbohydrates contribute to obesity more than fats or protein because we can eat a lot of refined carbohydrate calories before we feel full. If you would like to feel healthy and avoid weight gain, consider eating fewer refined carbs like sugar and flour while eating more fruits and vegetables. For instance, use celery sticks or apple slices instead of chips as delivery devices for dips or peanuts butter.
A good approach to carbohydrates is to know when to eat them. Unless you are exercising vigorously or your blood sugar has suddenly dropped or you are having an intense craving for alcohol, try eating sweets or refined carbs only after you have had some protein. When you eat carbohydrates along with protein your blood sugar will be more stable and you will likely eat less overall.
Oils and fats
Oils and fats have gotten a bad rap and many people are scared of them. It might help to know what your body uses them for. For starters, every cell in your body uses a double lipid (fat) layer to make a cell wall that keeps the cell’s insides in. If your cell walls are weak you can have problems like allergies. Another way your body uses fats is to encase all the nerves in your brain and body in myelin sheaths so the nerve impulses go where they are meant to go. And that myelin sheath is made out of lipids.
Finally, consider that cholesterol (another fat) is what your body uses as the building block for all the hormones you make, including sex hormones. No cholesterol means no estrogen or testosterone, or adrenaline, or a dozen other hormones you body uses so you can feel good.
Your body likes a variety of oils and fats because it uses different ones differently. Bacon grease has cholesterol for hormones; fish oils have omega-3s for your brain; butter has omega-6s while olive oil has omega-9s. Your body loves all of these so do include oils and fats in your diet and get them from a variety of sources. Remember, a little oil or fat in your meal can help you feel satisfied so you don’t overeat.
Understanding blood sugar and why it’s important to recovery
Blood sugar (glucose) is how your brain and cells get fed. Your digestive system converts whatever you eat into glucose, which is then carried by your blood to the cells in your body. Your body wants to keep your glucose level within a certain range. Your job is to eat in such as way that your body has a steady supply of blood sugar, not too much and not too little. People in recovery are sensitive to fluctuations in blood sugar, so we need to eat the right foods fairly often, every four hours or so.
Most people in recovery are hypoglycemic, this is, they tend to experience low blood sugar. Low blood sugar is the main trigger for cravings for alcohol, sugar, or carbs. If your blood sugar level is too low you may feel cranky or shaky and find it hard to think.
On the other hand, caffeine, candy, and soda can raise your blood sugar too fast. When your blood sugar goes too high your body has to compensate by using insulin to lower your blood sugar level, which can quickly lead to low blood sugar and more cravings for sugar or alcohol. Repeating this cycle too often can result in diabetes. Many of us in recovery find that we feel best when we reduce our intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates and consistently eat protein with our carbs.
If you are diabetic or anorexic you may have special instructions about what and how often to eat and should follow those instructions.
To keep your blood sugar steady, plan to have protein, carbs, and fats at every meal or snack because they break down into glucose at different rates, which keeps your blood sugar steady. Carbohydrates turn to glucose most quickly, protein more slowly, and oils and fats are the slowest of all. If you still feel hungry after eating, try adding in a little more fat to your meal. You’ll feel satisfied sooner and probably won’t eat as much.
By the way, a little protein just before you go to bed can help you sleep through the night. Try eating some almonds or peanut butter or a slice of turkey right before going to bed to help you sleep better.
How will you know if you are eating food that will help you feel good in recovery?
One way is to prepare your own food. Shop mostly around the outer walls of the grocery store where the vegetables, dairy, meat, and fruit are kept. Avoid the packaged food sold in the center aisles—be sure to read the labels on any packaged food you do purchase. Find foods or prepared meals that have a good balance of protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Look for at least eight grams of protein and no more than twenty-five grams of carbs per serving.
Try eating this way for a few weeks and notice whether you feel better. If you want proof that eating differently affects how you feel, keep a food diary and write down all the food you eat, when you ate it, and how you felt after you ate, noting any mood swings. Try a week with lots of protein and week without and compare notes at the end.
Keeping your brain happy and your blood sugar steady by eating protein regularly is a great start to physical recovery. To enjoy your food even more share a meal with friends.
If you want more support for you recovery, consider hiring a Recovery Coach. We provide trained professional coaches who work with food addiction, codependency, sex addiction, underearning and other addiction concerns. For a complimentary coaching consultation send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.