Diet Tips to Help with Addiction Recovery

Lauren Smith
Written by Lauren Smith on 21 July 2023

Long-term substance abuse frequently leaves people with severe nutritional deficiencies that must be corrected as they recover. Pursuing a healthy diet can not only help restore the body physically, but it can also heal the mind, reduce cravings, and give individuals the energy and resilience to work toward sobriety.

Diet Tips to Help with Addiction Recovery

How substance abuse affects nutrition

Many people who abuse substances are nutritionally deficient and suffering the physical consequences of it.

Addictive substances can damage our metabolism and organ function, leading to nutritional imbalances. In some cases, addictive substances can so severely damage digestive processes that they shut down and are unable to absorb nutrients from food.

Additionally, people struggling with addiction often fail to eat regularly or healthily, compounding their poor nutrition. Withdrawals, either during the thick of addiction or during detox, frequently cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, exacerbating nutritional deficits.

Abuse of specific substances is associated with specific nutritional problems.

Alcohol

Alcoholism is associated with myriad nutritional deficiencies, including electrolyte imbalances (low calcium, low sodium, low phosphate, low potassium, low magnesium, etc.) and deficiencies of both water-soluble vitamins (Bs, C) and fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K).

Alcohol abuse causes nutritional imbalances because alcohol, although it delivers no nutritional value (no protein, minerals, or vitamins), is calorically dense and satiating. People drinking large quantities of alcohol generally have a reduced appetite and may get as many as 50% of their daily calories from alcohol, eating little else. 

Their disrupted lifestyle and cycles of intoxication, hangovers, and withdrawal also inhibit regular eating. Withdrawal from alcohol—a common state for alcoholics, experienced when their blood alcohol content (BAC) drops below its usual level—can cause nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite, further reducing food intake and disturbing the body’s nutritional balance.

But even if alcoholics are taking in adequate nutrition, heavy alcohol use impairs their body’s ability to absorb, transport, and store essential nutrients. Specifically, alcohol use damages the liver, responsible for breaking down food and converting it into energy and nutrients and removing toxins from the body, and the pancreas, which secrets digestive enzymes, regulates blood sugar and the absorption of fat. Alcohol also damages the cells lining the stomach and intestine, reducing the body’s absorption of nutrients.

Alcoholism is especially associated with deficiencies of thiamine (vitamin B1), which can lead to Wernicke–Korsakoff’s syndrome (“wet brain”), a severe neurological disorder causing memory impairments, hallucinations, apathy, repetitive speech, loss of muscle coordination, vision problems, coma, and death.[6-7] Alcoholism causes thiamine deficiency through several mechanisms, including by reducing the absorption of thiamine from the gastrointestinal tract and impairing its utilization in cells.

Opioids

Opioids cause a lack of appetite, decreased food consumption, and reduced gastrointestinal motility, all contributing to poor nutrition. People with opioid use disorder typically eat diets excessively high in sugar, likely because sugar activates the same dopamine and mu-opioid that opioids do.

Heroin addiction is mainly associated with hyperkalemia (excessive potassium levels), while morphine abuse can inhibit the body’s use of calcium.

Stimulants

Stimulant abuse can also cause a lack of appetite and an irregular lifestyle, reducing food intake. Abusers of stimulants often consume only one meal a day, typically late at night and heavy in refined carbohydrates. Stimulant abuse may also impair the body’s absorption and metabolism of certain nutrients.

Cocaine abuse has been linked to deficiencies in B vitamins and vitamin C. Meth is particularly associated with vitamin C deficiency.

Marijuana

Marijuana is notorious for causing cravings for calorie-rich foods, commonly known as the “munchies.” However, that doesn’t necessarily mean marijuana abusers avoid nutritional deficiencies, even if they become overweight. The meals they eat under the influence of cannabis typically aren’t nutritionally balanced and are heavy in sugar and fat.

How improving nutrition and diet can aid recovery from addiction

Many people recovering from addiction are physically suffering from malnutrition and dehydration, which must be addressed through supplementation, fluids, and dietary interventions as they recover.

Increasingly, addiction specialists are also understanding that good nutrition doesn’t only correct deficiencies and repair the body physically. It can also be a pathway to sustainable sobriety, supporting brain health and recovery, improving mood, and building self-esteem. Conversely, unaddressed nutritional deficiencies can cause depression, anxiety, low energy, and cravings, increasing the likelihood of relapse and reducing the success of treatment.

Diet can aid addiction recovery in numerous ways:

  • A nutritious and balanced diet can help the body weather detoxification, minimizing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.
  • Regulating blood sugar can prevent spikes and crashes and cravings for sweets that can be interpreted as cravings for alcohol or drugs. Diets rich in protein and complex carbohydrates have been shown to help manage cravings.
  • Individuals typically gain weight in recovery, as they normalize eating and sometimes as addictions are transferred to high-fat and high-sugar foods. For some people, excessive weight gain in recovery can trigger relapses. Nutritional advice can ensure people develop healthy habits and maintain healthy weights.
  • Developing a healthy diet can encourage self-care and promote self-esteem and become one building block of a new sober lifestyle.

How improving nutrition and diet can improve mental health

For many people, addiction is undergirded and sustained by poor mental health, including anxiety and depression. While diet alone won’t typically alleviate mental health symptoms, it can promote mental well-being and happiness and reset a brain destabilized by addiction.

  • Diets high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, low-fat dairy, olive oil, and low amounts of meat have been associated with a lower risk of depression, while those with high amounts of red or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, potatoes, and butter elevate the risk of depression.
  • Addictions are often deficient in the amino acids tyrosine and tryptophan. These amino acids, present in poultry, fish, and dairy products, help produce important neurotransmitters including dopamine and serotonin, and therefore can contribute to repairing neurological pathways disrupted by addiction and promoting a sense of mental clarity and well-being.
  • B vitamins, including folate, and the mineral zinc have been shown to be useful in managing depression. Omega-3 oils, found in oily fish such as salmon and sardines, are thought to have similar benefits.
  • Dehydration, even if it’s minor, can depress mood as a healthy brain contains up to 78% water. Try to drink around six to eight glasses of water a day.
  • Caffeine can amplify anxiety and lead to withdrawal symptoms, including low mood and energy. Try to minimize your consumption.

Resources:

  1. Grotzkyj-Giorgi, M. (n.d.). Nutrition and addiction -can dietary changes assist with recovery?
  2. Substance use recovery and diet: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. (n.d.). .
  3. pi :: Psychiatry Investigation. (n.d.). Www.psychiatryinvestigation.org.
  4. Drinkaware. (2022, January 6). Alcohol withdrawal symptoms | Drinkaware. Www.drinkaware.co.uk.
  5. Alcohol and Nutrition - Alcohol Alert No. 22- 1993. (2015). Nih.gov.
  6. ADF. (2018). Alcohol related thiamine deficiency - Alcohol and Drug Foundation. Adf.org.au.
  7. Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (n.d.). Www.niaaa.nih.gov.
  8. The Role of Thiamine Deficiency in Alcoholic Brain Disease. (2019). Nih.gov.
  9. Mahboub, N., Rizk, R., Karavetian, M., & de Vries, N. (2021). Nutritional status and eating habits of people who use drugs and/or are undergoing treatment for recovery: a narrative review. Nutrition Reviews, 79(6), 627–635.
  10. Mysels, D. J., & Sullivan, M. A. (2010). The relationship between opioid and sugar intake: review of evidence and clinical applications. Journal of Opioid Management, 6(6), 445–452.
  11. Alcohol or Drug Use Can Rob Your Body of Nutrients | Psychology Today United Kingdom. (n.d.). Www.psychologytoday.com. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from
  12. Stone, E. (2022, October 4). Why does weed give you the munchies? Leafly.
  13. Substance Abuse and Nutrition. (n.d.). Www.todaysdietitian.com.
  14. Li, Y., Lv, M.-R., Wei, Y.-J., Sun, L., Zhang, J.-X., Zhang, H.-G., & Li, B. (2017). Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Research, 253(253), 373–382.
  15. BDA. (n.d.). Depression and Diet Food Fact Sheet. Www.bda.uk.com.

Activity History - Last updated: 24 July 2023, Published date:

This page does not offer medical advice. See more

The information provided on this page is intended to be informative and does not substitute or stand for medical advice. If you are concerned about any of the issues raised on this page then please seek medical advice from a doctor or treatment specialist. If you feel that you require clinical assistance, a diagnosis, treatment, or any urgent medical care then please contact 911.

Ready to talk about treatment? Call us today. (855) 648-7288
Helpline Information
Phone numbers listed within our directory for individual providers will connect directly to that provider.
Any calls to numbers marked with (I) symbols will be routed through a trusted partner, more details can be found by visiting https://recovered.org/terms.
For any specific questions please email us at info@recovered.org.

Related articles