With everything happening in the world, it can be easy to forget that nutrition is a vital part of getting and staying healthy and strengthening your immune system. Healthy eating is important for everyone, but particularly for people in recovery. While active addiction can deplete your body, nutritious eating can provide you with the strength you need to heal.
“Focusing on nutrition is extremely important for anyone in recovery,” says Sarah Hooff, a certified holistic nutritionist and certified sports nutrition coach, who works at Sunshine Coast Health Centre, a rehab in British Columbia, Canada. “A balanced diet will help replenish depleted nutrients, heal the body, restore energy and improve overall mood and emotional well-being.”
Scientists are increasingly making the connection between gut health and mental health. Properly nourishing your microbiome — the bacteria that live in your gut and keep you healthy — starts with eating well, including plenty of fiber found in fruits and vegetables.
“I always share with clients that 90% of serotonin is produced in the gut and 50% of dopamine is as well,” Hooff says. “These two neurotransmitters are needed for regulating our moods. If we want to feel well we need to eat well.”
Many people, especially in early recovery, are battling health ailments ranging from high blood pressure to malnutrition to depression. Eating wholesome foods can help combat all of these.
“It’s a pretty serious picture yet proper nutrition can aid in all these areas,” Hooff says. “I’ve been extremely fortunate enough to work at Sunshine Coast Health Centre, and watching what regular, wholesome and freshly prepared meals can do for one’s health in a matter of a couple weeks is quite miraculous to say the least.”
Despite the importance of healthy eating, learning nutrition can be difficult when you’re already focusing on the day-to-day challenges of staying sober. Hooff says it’s important to approach nutrition from a place of joy and happiness. Have fun exploring healthy eating, rather than thinking of it as a chore.
“We need to add more of the things that make us happy,” Hooff says. “Most of the people I see have a desire to see themselves active and enjoying a healthy social life again, and free from the heaviness that took most people suffering with an addiction by surprise.”
Having fun with nutrition is one way to move toward that goal. Here are Hooff’s steps for getting started:
- Start slowly. Don’t worry about setting yourself strict parameters around what you should and shouldn’t eat. Instead, take time to explore healthy, nutrient-rich foods in a variety of colors. “Don’t get too focused on too many rules and strategies,” Hooff says. “Wholesome, balanced vibrant foods consumed regularly throughout the day really is the best strategy for optimal health.”
- Ditch the good/bad dichotomy. The diet industry has people programmed to think of food as “good” or “bad.” However, in the real world the benefits of food aren’t that black and white. A homemade cookie might not be good for your body, per se, but it can certainly feed your soul. So, follow your intuition when it comes to what you eat, and appreciate the choices you have. “I don’t really think of foods as good or bad but as a blessing,” Hooff says.
- Focus on fiber. Remember the importance of gut bacteria? Well, those helpful microbes love to snack on fiber. Fruits and vegetables are the best sources of fiber, but when comparing packaged foods, choosing the one with more fiber is a good guiding principal, Hoof says.
- Eat breakfast. Many people in active addiction skip breakfast. Eating a healthy breakfast — even as simple as a whole-wheat toast with peanut butter or avocado — is a great way to set your intention for healthy eating throughout the rest of the day. Eating breakfast might feel odd at first, but soon it will become a part of your routine, Hooff says.
- Get moving. Exercise is just as important as good nutrition. Find time to incorporate movement — even a simple walk — into your day. “Exercise will help improve appetite and nutrient absorption, create new neural pathways in the brain as well as increase overall energy,” Hooff says.
Like many things in early recovery, learning to eat nutritiously will have a learning curve.
“It’ll take some time to restore some of these areas, but if one can start providing the nutrients that have been needed as soon as possible, one starts to feel better and can build on that progress with so much more confidence,” Hooff says.
Remember, it’s important to have fun along the way!
“I’m of the mindset that it’s much easier to replace a harmful habit when we have something to look forward to,” she says.