Nutrition, Proper Diet Missing from Most Recovery Programs

By Paul Gaita 11/14/16

Why don't recovery centers advise patients on how to maintain proper nutrition after completing rehab?

Nutrition, Proper Diet Missing from Most Recovery Programs

Individuals recovering from substance use issues face a number of uphill battles in their paths to sobriety, but the subject of proper nutrition and diet is rarely addressed by addiction and recovery facilities. That's the focus of a new article published in the Behavior Health Nutrition newsletter from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which discusses how nutritional support can benefit treatment and recovery.

Maria Schellenberger, a student at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology's Master of Science in Nutrition, Healthspan and Longevity program, and the article's co-author David Wiss, founder of Nutrition in Recovery, says that nutrition is a two-fold problem for addicts in recovery.

Many begin treatment with a host of nutritional deficiencies caused by substance use disorder: "For example, opiates decrease gastrointestinal motility and often clients experience severe constipation, whereas other drugs may cause bouts of diarrhea," said Schellenberger. Addiction to alcohol often causes severe vitamin deficiency, including loss of thiamine and other B vitamins. 

Once they regain control of their physical health, Schellenberger says that patients should be advised on how to maintain proper nutrition after completing rehabilitation. Unfortunately, recovery centers rarely set good examples of a nutritious diet for patients while in recovery.

"Often, nutrition is overlooked and facilities provide unlimited access to foods that are highly palatable, such as refined sugars and fried foods," she noted. "In the long term, this is a great disservice to clients as they are not receiving proper nutrition to replete their likely inadequate storages. This can also lead to excessive weight gain, causing distress to many clients."

An immediate solution for recovery facilities is to offer the services of a registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) to not only create healthy meals but also provide nutrition guidance and education for clients post-rehab.

Unfortunately, as Schellenberger noted, many recovery centers regard such a position as an unnecessary expense. "Many facilities are not-for-profit and feel that they are unable to budget for an RDN for services," she explained. Schellenberger also said that since few studies exist that attribute nutrition as a significant aspect of addiction recovery, as a result, "many counselors I have spoken with feel that the main concern is helping their clients achieve sobriety, and they do not see how nutrition has an impact on their recovery," she said. 

Changing the recovery industry's stance on RDNs will require expanded educational programs for students to learn how to address issues of malnutrition and eating disorder behavior in addiction recovery patients.

Greater presence will hopefully help RDNs "prove that we are integral members of the treatment team," as Schellenberger said. Once RDNs become part of the treatment process, Schellenberger notes that they "will be able to minimize immediate issues in early recovery, such as malnutrition or gastrointestinal distress, and slowly educate clients to prepare their own meals once they are no longer in a treatment facility. This long-term support is necessary to bring about lasting changes."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.