How Food Can Help or Hurt Your Recovery

By Olivia Pennelle 07/12/16

It's easy to use food addictively in recovery. What causes this and how do you deal with it?

It can help.

As someone new to recovery, or someone several years in, you may think of this as a strange question—and you’d be right. What on earth does food have to do with recovery?! Well, in my experience, I’d go so far as to say that it has a significant influence on my wellbeing, and what influences my wellbeing impacts my recovery. I’ve been in recovery for over four years and my journey has been one of highs and lows, trials and tribulations, monumental bursts of growth and enlightening moments of revelation. I have discovered that, in recovery, everything can be relearned, discovered, uncovered, let go of and awakened. Today, I strive for an equilibrium which involves a holistic approach to recovery—one that I am truly passionate about—that includes nourishing my body. But, that hasn’t always been the case.

I have an inability to cope with life, and that, my friends, is the heart of my addiction.

Disconnection from self

I fondly recall my first sponsor observing that I had what she described as a "disconnection" between my mind, body and spirit. Being a newbie to recovery, with the enthusiasm I liken to an adolescent Labrador, I was very keen to learn how to "fix" this disconnection. At that time, I was of the naïve view that recovery would be about fixing my broken self, and I keenly set about with that as my new mission—I’d go as far as to say my identity. 

I’ve come to the realization that recovery isn’t about fixing you. It’s about letting the light shine through your brokenness. It’s about embracing your broken self—being you, in spite of your fragmented self. And in embracing those shards of brokenness, you discover yourself, you reform, you evolve. That brokenness is the very foundation from which you shine: like a beacon of hope and transformation.

I came across this Peter Rollins quote—"if you cannot speak of your brokenness, your brokenness will speak for you." How true I have found this to be. In my journey of self-discovery and emotional recovery—though step work, speaking honestly, writing, and therapy—I discovered my brokenness. My addiction manifested itself in the form of both faulty relationships and faulty coping mechanisms—with myself, with others and the external means by which I was trying to fix myself. 

What does food have to do with recovery?

You may wonder what this has to do with food? Well, it was one of my faulty external fixes, just like lust, relationships, shopping, gambling, smoking, etc. When you remove the first fix (the drugs) you’re left with you. And that is uncomfortable, to say the least. So it is only natural that an addictive brain gravitates toward other fixes which stimulate the brain’s reward center in the same way as drugs. It’s a well-trodden pathway. These fixes release dopamine in the brain. The brain remembers that reward and seeks it out again by repeating the behavior. This is the way in which my brokenness spoke for me; I sought to avoid myself and my feelings and use any means possible that would change the way that I felt. I have an inability to cope with life, and that, my friends, is the heart of my addiction.

My food rock bottom

Had I known what I now know, I can honestly say that I would have experienced a more enhanced recovery—one of fewer roller coasters, one which ascended to mania and plunged into darkness with a bang. You see, it took me a while to get to where I am today. I’ve lost nearly 50 pounds and have a very active life. Most days I seize life wholeheartedly. And I believe that to be not only a testament to the hard work that I have put into my recovery, but also in the action I’ve taken around those faulty fixes. I discovered that I sought to use food as a means to escape myself and life. Eventually, my brokenness spoke for me. I could no longer hide the pain. I reached my own rock bottom with food in recovery.

The rock bottom began when I was encouraged to eat lots of sugar and drink lots of coffee in the early days of recovery. That is quite possibly one of the worst things you could do. It had me swinging on a pendulum between hypomania and depression, and I sought to repeat that cycle when my blood sugar crashed from the huge spike I experienced in consuming these substances. I perpetuated that addictive pattern of behavior, repeatedly engaging in activities that provided only temporary relief despite expensive consequences. The consequences to me were excessive weight gain, being unable to function, tired all the time, binging, and disastrously low self-esteem. I only realized there was a problem when I tried to remove the culprits: bread, cheese, butter, cakes, high-fat foods. I felt cravings, distress and an overwhelming sense of discomfort. Remind you of anything?

In reaching that place, I had to acknowledge that I was using food addictively. I was always on a new diet, I always ate beyond fullness, I ate to cope with stress, I isolated with just my companion (food) and binged, I snacked all day to ease an un-stimulating life, I was never happy with my appearance and I was resistant to deal with the root cause of the problem. Food not only provided control, reassurance and comfort, it provided a sense of warm fuzz and provided numbness to difficult emotions. This behavior is something that I had practiced my entire life. I have never had a normal relationship with food. At the end of my addiction, I had gained 140 pounds. And in recovery, that merry-go-round continued: diet, binge, regain lost weight, hate myself. It is only in looking into my brokenness that I was able to stop that cycle. But it has not been easy. 

What influences food addiction?

There are many informative articles about what influences addiction, but essentially it is characterized by: 

Fear of not having enough or feeling hungry when I’m on a "diet."

Chronic overeating which stimulates brain opiates that my brain had become dependent upon, thus experiencing withdrawal symptoms when I don’t eat those foods.

Stress from an underwhelming job and doing too much.

Depression, of which I have a long-standing history with, and which causes cravings for carbohydrate-rich foods.

Inability to recognize fullness which mean that I overeat.

Pre-programming, my well-trodden path, my pattern, my ingrained behavior.

That the brain, particularly an addict's brain, constantly requires more substances to achieve the same reward.

Dealing with food addiction

As with all recovery, put simply, we begin with an admission. We realize the problem and we ask for help. It sounds so simple when it’s so neatly wrapped up in a single sentence, doesn’t it? For me, it wasn’t. It never is. But I work at it. Every damn day. Here are some foundational changes I made:

• I hired a food coach who helped to educate me, help me form healthy habits and coach me to healthy living. I then took the same course she took and educated myself further

• I bought a bike and gave up my bus pass

• I practice mindfulness around food, and try and distinguish between when I am hungry and when I am emotionally hungry and act accordingly

• I don’t eat, or at least try and limit, certain foods. I eat whole and unprocessed foods

• I seek to fulfill my life by finding meaning and purpose. This means having fun, expressing myself and being creative

• I take care of my mind, body and spirit. I practice self-care, rest and relaxation

• I stopped obsessively weighing myself and attaching meaning to the figure on the scale.

By living mindfully and nourishing ourselves, our bodies fire much better, our minds are clearer. We have more energy and we feel more alive. That, to me, is using food as a means to recover. We don’t get there overnight, it takes time and dedication. Nothing worthwhile is easy. But the freedom we gain from active addiction—whether we use food or drugs—is worth it. It is so worth it. Recovery means having the restoration of choice. Today, we can choose to seek fun in life, rather than, conversely, being unfulfilled with life and seeking escape in food or drugs.

A friend of mine recently reminded me that just because you feel pain, doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. Leaning into this pain is where the gift of recovery lies, in knowing we no longer have to run from ourselves or our lives. Feel the pain and brokenness and use it as a platform to shine!

Writer, blogger, nutrition and recovery advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), entered recovery in March 2012. While 12 Step fellowship forms the foundation of her recovery, Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach. Liv’s Recovery Kitchen charts her weight loss journey and seeks to highlight the parallels between food, alcohol and drug addiction. She also hosts a series of interviews with prominent figures in recovery and experts in the nutritional field and shares delicious recipes.

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