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Nourish the Recovering Addict’s Body

A whole foods diet and supplements can serve as an important link

In the addiction treatment field, even the most widely accepted methods of treatment can result in a relapse rate of over 85% when used alone, with no adjunctive services. Treating the body as a whole, rather than just treating the disease, can increase an addict’s chances at not only recovery, but also a healthy life.


Addiction nutrition is the science of diet and health directly related to helping those with chemical and process addictions. Though relatively new to the addiction treatment field, addiction nutrition is a fast-growing and dynamic addition to present treatment modalities. Recognizing the role of the body in recovery through nutrition, exercise, wilderness experiences, yoga and acupuncture solidifies and validates the changes our clients are making psychologically.

Nutritional dangers

Substance abuse and poor nutrition often go hand-in-hand, with one issue exacerbating the other. These nutrient imbalances often can make cravings for alcohol and drugs intensify, and can worsen depression and anxiety.

Many addicts newly in recovery are suffering from depression. This form of depression is often caused by a decrease in levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. When the addict is using substances and engaging in compulsive behaviors, excitable neurotransmitters are released. This repeated rush of chemicals can ultimately cause depletion within the brain; hence the client will struggle to feel “positive” emotions. These occurrences also can increase individuals’ anxiety and anger.

Many addicts report increases in sugar and caffeine cravings when newly sober, because of the brain’s repeated exposure to mood-altering chemicals. These individuals are craving any other feeling than the discomfort that comes from detoxification and low neurochemical levels.

Sugar and caffeine sometimes can be seen as less dangerous than addicts’ drugs of choice. However, they can be a major catalyst to relapse. If the newly recovering client is compulsively eating sugar or drinking caffeinated beverages, the body and mind are still on a roller coaster of energy and emotion. Instead of the client eating foods that nourish the brain, the sugar demands the release of insulin and the client will get a rush, similar to though less powerful than that from his/her drug of choice.

When the client depends on sugar or caffeine for energy, when the body is unable to sustain the rush, he/she can quickly return to drugs or alcohol. Also, the empty calories in sugar-laden foods will deprive their brains of the nutrients needed for cognitive repair, processing and critical thinking.

Whole foods diet; supplements

With proper addiction nutrition, not only can we rid the body of the toxins, but we also can decrease the new possible dependencies on sugar. People with alcohol addiction also have damaged the body’s ability to absorb and utilize important nutrients such as vitamins A, E and D, as a result of damage to the liver. This can impede their ability to break down fats and can precipitate cirrhosis of the liver or liver cancer. A whole foods diet is crucial for addicts in early and long-term recovery.

A whole foods diet is simply summed up with this perspective by author Michael Pollan: Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. Overly prepared, frozen or prepackaged foods can have limited nutrients, increased sugar, preservatives and sodium, as well as artificial colors and flavors. Eating a meal plan such as the one outlined below will provide almost all the nutrients humans need to survive and thrive.

Though it is impossible and irresponsible to recommend any nutritional supplementation to all people or any group of people, some supplements have properties specific to helping alcoholics and drug addicts heal. A high-quality multivitamin is always a good place to start. I often recommend a liquid food based multivitamin to those in early recovery. Their body may not be able to break down a capsule because of their damaged GI tract and limited enzymatic activity.

Digestive enzymes are also helpful, especially for those who have experienced long-term constipation from opiate use. This will regulate the bowels and speed detoxification. One specific supplement I often recommend is L-glutamine. Taken with a medical professional’s supervision, L-glutamine can help a recovering addict reduce cravings for alcohol and sugar by up to 35%.

Omega 3 fatty acids are also recommended to many clients to help repair some of the damage done to tissues in the GI tract and the brain from repeated exposure to toxins. High doses of vitamin C (up to 10,000 mg) as well as vitamin D daily can also help heal damage done from addiction. Working with an addiction nutritionist, a client can get a customized meal and supplement plan to support long-term recovery.

Proper whole foods diets along with 12-Step treatment and/or therapy can support our clients in staying clean and sober and feeling healthy. Addiction nutrition also can heal the damage caused to the body from addiction.

Meal plans are an essential part of recovery for clients. Using the term “meal plan” rather than “diet” can reinforce the long-term life change that is needed, rather than establish a mindset of a short-term “fix.”

Here is what a sample meal plan could look like:

  • ½ to 1 liter of water upon waking
  • Fruit
  • Protein-rich breakfast: 2 organic eggs scrambled with spinach and feta; 1 slice 100% whole grain toast or gluten-free toast; 1 teaspoon butter
  • Snack: 10 almonds; 1 small apple
  • Lunch: large romaine salad with assorted vegetables; 4 ounces of grilled chicken; olive oil and balsamic dressing with fresh herbs
  • Snack: String cheese and carrot sticks
  • Dinner: Salmon burger (see recipe); steamed broccoli with 1 teaspoon butter; ½ cup quinoa or brown rice
  • Snack: ½ cup organic cottage cheese with ½ tablespoon honey and cinnamon

Also, continuing to drink water throughout the day (preferably not while eating) will keep the body hydrated and help speed detoxification.

Addiction nutrition can be used in both outpatient and inpatient treatment. Inpatient treatment nutritional counseling can be individualized and also can take place in group settings. Clients can meet with the nutritionist and discuss past eating habits, digestive concerns and future goals. Meal planning, shopping lists, supplementation recommendations, didactic groups and cooking classes can be part of the curriculum.

Outpatient addiction nutrition therapy also can benefit clients. Therapists can make recommendations to a nutrition therapist to be part of a treatment team. The nutrition therapist can meet with clients in the office or even in a client’s home to help set up their meal plan, as well as to equip clients’ kitchens to set them up for nutritional success. Clients also can get recommendations on supplements to heal their body and to decrease cravings that can ultimately end in relapse.

Addiction nutrition along with psychotherapy can have a dramatic and lasting impact when working with clients with addictive disorders. It helps them to heal the body as well as the mind and spirit. Victoria Abel, MA, MNT