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Everything You Should Know About Nutrition and Addiction

By The Fix staff 03/15/21

One of the often-overlooked effects of addiction is deficiencies of key vitamins and nutrients. Here’s how to start rebuilding your health.

Image: 
Two women eating a healthy meal and laughing.
Eating well can help your body repair the damage done by drug or alcohol abuse. Photo 6603149 © Jonathan Ross | Dreamstime.com

Drug or alcohol use takes a massive toll on your body. Drugs and alcohol can affect the way that your brain regulates neurotransmitters, and the health of your cardiovascular system. But too often, the impact of addiction on nutrition gets overlooked.

Most people who are actively using don’t have the bandwidth to focus on eating healthy. When you’re living in the chaos of active addiction, you’re unlikely to go through the extra steps of preparing a meal that nourishes your body. Even when people get sober and enter recovery, the day-to-day demands of maintaining sobriety can push healthy nutrition to the back burner.

However, eating well can help your body repair the damage done by drug or alcohol abuse. That’s why more treatment centers are incorporating nutrition into their accommodations and lessons. Proper balanced nutrition can give you the energy to face the demands of recovery, and help you feel valued and deserving.

Here’s what you should know about addiction and nutrition, and how to get yourself back on track.

Addiction is linked with poor nutrition

Many people who abuse drugs or alcohol also have poor nutrition, research has shown. There are a few reasons for this: people with substance use disorder may not be educated about the importance of nutrition. Even if they know what they should be doing, they often live in environments that make it difficult to prepare nutritious foods, research shows. If your housing isn’t secure, for example, you’re less likely to think about creating healthy meals.

The habits developed during a period of active use can be hard to break. People who are in treatment for opioid addiction eat fewer fruits and vegetables than the general public, but eat more sweets and foods that do not have a significant vitamin content.

Using can leave your vitamin and nutrient stores depleted

Over time, using drugs or alcohol frequently affects the stores of vitamins and minerals in your body. People who abuse alcohol have lower levels of these vitamins:

  • Vitamins B6
  • Vitamin A
  • Thiamine
  • Riboflavin
  • Pantothenic acid

Drug use is also linked to mineral deficiencies, including:

  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Calcium
  • Chromium
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium

Together, these deficiencies can have a big impact on your health, causing symptoms that range from depression, confusion, skin issues, hair loss and anemia. They can also make the symptoms of withdrawal worse, so some researchers recommend incorporating nutritional supplements into medically-assisted treatment and withdrawal.

Nutrition can impact your recovery

What you’re eating during the withdrawal and treatment process can impact your outcomes. Research shows that eating more protein and complex carbohydrates like fruits, vegetables and whole grains can boost the success of a methadone program.

“Methadone maintenance treatment, itself, is not a favorable approach until it is coupled with proper diet, due to negative role of vitamins and minerals deficiencies in the withdrawal process,” researchers wrote in one study.

Eating healthy isn’t about weight loss

Let’s be clear — eating healthy has lots of great benefits. While a balanced diet can help you maintain a proper weight, the real benefit of eating well in recovery isn’t about a number on the scale, but about nourishing your body and healing it. A balanced approach to nutrition lets you have treats, but also learning to give your body all the nutrients and vitamins it needs. So don’t worry about the scale, which might leave you discouraged. Instead, focus on how healthy eating makes you feel.

Where to start

Completely revamping your approach to eating can be overwhelming, especially in the midst of trying to achieve and maintain sobriety. So, when it comes to building good nutrition, don’t be afraid to start small.

Here are a few steps that can help replenish your body:

  • Take a multivitamin. Although this isn’t the same as getting your recommended daily nutrients from food, it’s a simple, easy step to help build up nutrients and avoid deficiencies each day.
  • Add more fruits and vegetables. One simple way to build more nutrients into your diet is by focusing on fruits and vegetables. Challenges yourself to incorporate a fruit or vegetable into every meal. Cut up health plant-based snacks and leave them outside so you’re more likely to grab those when you’re hungry.
  • Focus on color. If your plate is colorful, changes are you’re getting an array of different vitamins. See how many different colors and textures you can incorporate into your meals and snacks.
  • Talk to your doctor about nutrition. Open a dialogue with your treatment professionals about nutrition. If you’re open to it, ask for a referral to a nutritionist who works with people in recovery. He or she will be able to help you identify meals that satisfy your taste buds, while also nourishing your body.

Learning about nutrition, exploring new dishes and finding out what works for you can be a fun pastime in early recovery, and leave you feeling much better. 

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