We’ve all heard the quote “you are what you eat”, and at one point or another in our lives we all realize how true this is. For me, it was during my addiction recovery.
My substance problems began when I was only a kid. I still remember the very first time I got drunk: I was 9 years old and very curious and had been wondering for a while about that magical, clear drink that made adults happier after they had taken a few shots.
Finally, at a family party, I managed to sneak a little aguardiente -a popular, anise-flavored, Colombian drink- while the adults were busy. I remember I didn’t like the taste, but I did like the way it made me feel.
A cousin of mine found out what I did and made me drink water and eat food, and said he’d cover for me as long as I would never do it again. Of course, I promised I wouldn’t, but it took me longer to make the promise than to break it.
I kept drinking alcohol from that day on, then, when I turned 14, I started experimenting with marijuana and by the time I was 19 I was hooked on more hard-core drugs like meth.
At 23 I was sitting in a cell, paying two years in prison for drug-related charges. It was there where I realized I still had a chance to turn my life around. Flash forward to today, I’ve been sober for 9 years and healthier than ever. Recovery was long, and it took a lot of effort, willpower, and even some pain during alcohol detox.
During recovery, I realized how much damage I had caused my body, and decided I would make up for it. One of the most important ways to do this was through nutrition, which not only improved my overall physical health but also my mental and emotional health, and helped me stay sober. Here are 6 nutritional tips I learned while I was in recovery.
- Amino Acids
Amino acids, are the “building blocks of protein”, which, amongst other things, allow the release of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine by our neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that make you feel happier, satisfied, and overall healthier both mentally and emotionally.
As an addict, you have low levels of these chemicals, but when you increase your amino acid intake during recovery, these levels will increase and you’ll most likely feel a lot better. That’s what they did for me.
While the body produces some amino acids on its own, there are many foods that can help you get all the amino acids you need in order to stay healthy. The best thing is, most of them are delicious too. I was very happy when I found out chicken is one of the foods that contain the most amino acids because it’s been my favorite food since I was a child. Eggs, lean meat, tuna, salmon, and plant-based protein sources such as quinoa and soybeans are rich in amino acids too, so you have plenty of options to choose from.
Antioxidants are molecules that combat oxidative damage to the body, which happens when cells expel free radicals. Free radicals alter the body’s normal functions and damage your systems, and are found in every substance I had been abusing. Luckily, there are many foods that contain antioxidants; fruits and vegetables are packed with them.
I try to eat a portion of vegetables with my lunch and dinner and eat at least three portions of fruit during the day. What I do, in order for vegetables not to lose their nutritional properties, is cook them lightly or eat them raw.
As I mentioned before, psychoactive substances damage your body systems, all of them to some measure. This includes, of course, your digestive system. Probiotics are good bacteria that will help restore your digestive system’s healthy state.
They are found mostly in yogurt, so make sure to eat lots of it -I usually eat it at breakfast with a portion of fruit- and if need be, you can take supplements as well.
- Eat smaller meals – more often
When you’re recovering from an addiction it’s important for you to be aware of your sugar levels in order to keep blood sugar levels stable and avoid crashes. Achieving this can be as simple as eating smaller meals, more frequently throughout the day.
A good idea -and what I did all through recovery and still do now- is to carry snacks in your bag or pockets, such as peanuts or almonds, and set times to eat them during the day.
- Cut into refined carbs and sugary food
Even though they are delicious and sometimes addictive, refined carbs and sugary foods won’t do anything to improve your physical and mental health. They provide empty calories, which contain no nutrients that your body can profit from.
In addition, these food groups cause fluctuations in mood, which -in my experience- you have plenty of during recovery and don’t need them increased.
As hard as it may seem to cut these foods from your diet, there are other types of snacks you can eat, such as nuts, grains, or complex starches that will leave you just as satisfied.
- Keep a food diary
This probably doesn’t sound appealing to you at all (it sure didn’t to me), but linking how you feel to what you eat can help you learn which foods work for you and which don’t since everybody is a bit different.
I found it boring at first too, and sometimes even forgot to do it, but I got used to it and it ended up helping me discover which foods actually made me feel better physically and mentally. This helped me to increase the intake of these foods and decrease the intake of foods that weren’t doing anything for me.
Eating a balanced diet is fundamental not only in recovery but in your sober life as well. Increasing your amino acid, antioxidant and probiotic intake, as well as reducing refined carbs and sugary food can make a real difference in your well being. Adjusting to a diet that meets these requirements is not as hard as it seems! There are many delicious recipes for healthy foods you can make that will help you achieve real physical and mental health, and once you adapt to them, you’ll never want to go back
Do you have any other tips about nutrition and sobriety? If you have any suggestions, please leave a comment below.