The Importance of a Healthy Diet for Recovering Addicts

Proper nutrition is beneficial for everyone, but a healthy diet plays a key role in addiction recovery. When you are being treated for drug or alcohol addiction, your recovery team will help you develop a meal plan that nourishes and heals your body. This will also help stabilize your mood and give you the willpower needed to continue to stay sober.

Substance Abuse and Nutritional Needs

Drug and alcohol use can affect the body’s nutritional needs in many different ways, depending upon the particular substance being abused.


Alcohol is the most commonly abused substance in the United States. Alcoholism is a progressive illness, and many alcoholics also have mental health struggles such as depression and anxiety. Additionally, some alcoholics abuse other illegal drugs that can compound the negative nutritional effects of addiction.

From a dietary standpoint, alcohol is problematic because it provides calories but little in the way of necessary vitamins and minerals. The empty calories in beer, wine, or hard liquor create a feeling of fullness, thus reducing motivation to seek out nutritionally balanced meals. Over time, this can lead to multiple vitamin deficiencies even though the alcoholic may continue to gain weight due to high-calorie consumption.

healthy diet for recovering addicts

Alcohol interferes with protein metabolism, which can cause low albumin levels, reduce blood clotting, decrease urea production, and increase fluid in the abdomen. Long-term alcohol abusers may suffer from liver disease, which causes night blindness by limiting the body’s ability to convert vitamin A to beta carotene. Alcoholics with liver disease also face an increased risk of developing diabetes or glucose intolerance.


Marijuana is known to increase the user’s appetite, so individuals suffering from addiction may be overweight. This means they will require a reduced-calorie diet to help shed the excess pounds as they work toward a healthier lifestyle.

According to a recent study by Didier Jutras-Aswad, a professor at the University of Montreal, and Emily Dubé, a graduate student at the University of Montreal, marijuana’s effect on weight gain is pronounced in female substance abusers. The increase in weight gain among women who are addicted to marijuana is thought to be attributed to the effect of hormonal fluctuations throughout the menstrual cycle.


best diet for recovering addicts

Stimulants include crack, cocaine, amphetamines, and methamphetamine. Stimulants cause your body’s nerve cells to release large amounts of dopamine and other natural neurotransmitters. When the brain is flooded with dopamine, it produces a feeling of euphoria that essentially teaches the person struggling with addiction to continue to seek out the substance.

Stimulants are most commonly linked to weight loss and an overall decrease in appetite. When a person is in withdrawal, there is a risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalances.

Cocaine abusers frequently suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia, which must be treated at the same time as the drug addiction. Nutrition therapy helps promote a healthy body mass index (BMI) while reducing drug cravings.

Methamphetamine abuse is linked to serious dental problems, which can make it difficult for people recovering from addiction to eat certain foods. They will require a diet that is easy to chew and swallow given their dental limitations.


Opioids include drugs such as codeine, oxycodone, heroin, methadone, and morphine. Opioids imitate the brain’s natural neurotransmitters and fool the brain’s receptors into sending abnormal messages to the body.

Withdrawal symptoms are problematic for those suffering from opioid addiction, as they can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea that interfere with nutrient intake by causing dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. Since opioids slow body movements, they can also lead to slower digestion and constipation. Nutrition for recovering opiate addicts must involve creating a diet that addresses these unique challenges.

Heroin is one of the most troublesome opioids, since it can lead to a glucose intolerance. This problem usually resolves itself once the person is sober. However, people seeking treatment for heroin addiction will likely require blood sugar monitoring and need to eat balanced meals throughout the day to keep their blood sugar levels stable.

Best Diet for Recovering Addicts: Medical Nutrition Therapy

Medical nutrition therapy (MNT) involves improving health via the use of a specially customized diet created by a professional nutritionist or registered dietitian based on the patient’s medical history, a physical exam, current test results, and long-term health goals. MNT is a well-established treatment protocol for patients with diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol, and it plays a vital role in addiction recovery as well.

nutrition for recovering opiate addicts

MNT can be thought of as part of a holistic treatment plan for drug and alcohol addiction. Dietary changes won’t cure addiction on their own, but they can create a foundation an individual struggling with addiction needs to stay sober. According to Today’s Dietitian, the goals of medical nutrition therapy for people suffering from addiction include:

  • Stabilize the addict’s mood and reduce stress
  • Create a diet that reduces cravings for drugs and/or alcohol
  • Heal damage caused by substance abuse
  • Address any relevant co-occurring medical issues
  • Guard against a tendency to overeat as the person detoxes
  • Promote a healthy lifestyle that sets the stage for sober living

If necessary, the nutritionist or dietitian may work with the individual struggling with addiction to offer tips on grocery shopping and meal preparation. These practical life skills are essential for maintaining a healthy diet. Learning to take pleasure in a well-prepared meal can also provide a psychological boost to the recovering addict, as he or she seeks to redefine personal interests away from substance abuse.

Recovering from an Eating Disorder

Eating disorders often go hand in hand with drug and alcohol abuse. Both conditions are often associated with a history of trauma, including sexual assault, domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, the death of a loved one, or sudden life transitions that cause an increase in stress. Restricting eating becomes a way to regain a feeling of control, just as abusing drugs or alcohol provides a temporary relief from unpleasant situations.

healthy food for recovering addicts

According to the National Eating Disorders Foundation, people with eating disorders suffer from substance abuse at a rate that is five times higher than that seen in the general population. Almost half of all people with a diagnosed eating disorder also struggle with drug or alcohol addiction. Bulimia sufferers often abuse alcohol due it its tendency to aid in vomiting, while individuals struggling with anorexia frequently rely on stimulants such as methamphetamines to reduce hunger pains.
MNT for people who also suffer from an eating disorder focuses on addressing issues such as:

  • Obsessive calorie counting
  • Diet restrictions that promote nutrient deficiencies by excluding entire food groups
  • Phobias associated with specific food items
  • Difficulty eating in social situations
  • Obsessive calorie counting

Eating disorders and substance abuse fuel each other, increasing the harmful toll on a person’s life. To establish the foundation for a lasting recovery, both conditions must be treated together. The ultimate goal of MNT for an individual struggling with addiction who also suffers from an eating disorder is to promote a balanced and sustainable relationship with food that is free from distorted thoughts about one’s body image.

Learning What Hunger Feels Like

As you work with your nutritionist or dietitian on the path to recovery, one key lesson will be relearning how to recognize your body’s hunger cues. It’s common for those in the early stages of recovery to mistake the signs of natural hunger as a craving for drugs or alcohol. Food triggers the same physiological response as addictive substances, including a release of dopamine.

healthy diet for recovering addicts

The physical signs of hunger are a little different for everyone but can include:

  • Light-headed feeling
  • Stomach growling
  • Headache
  • Lack of energy
  • Shakiness/weakness
  • Irritability

It’s normal to feel some hunger between meals, as this means you are not overeating. However, you should try not to let your hunger get to a 9 or 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. When you’re ravenous, your willpower is reduced and you’re more likely to make unhealthy food choices.

To get back in touch with your natural hunger cues, make a conscious effort to eat slowly. Your brain takes a while to catch up with your stomach, which means eating too quickly is likely to leave you with an unpleasant, stuffed feeling.

Stop after you’ve eaten about one quarter of your food and ask yourself if you’re still hungry. If you are, keep eating and check your hunger level again at the halfway point. When you’re full, put your food aside. Your parents may have urged you to always clean your plate when you were a child, but this habit encourages overeating and interferes with your ability to recognize your body’s signals indicating proper nourishment.

Healthy Food for Recovering Addicts

Your recovery team will provide specific nutrition advice tailored to your unique needs, but the following are generally accepted as key building blocks for individuals struggling with addiction looking to overhaul their diets:

nutrition for recovering opiate addicts

  • Water: Dehydration is a common problem in the early stages of recovery. Drinking filtered water is the best way to prevent dehydration symptoms while also relieving constipation. Aim for half an ounce to one ounce of water for each pound of body weight. For example, a 150-pound woman should try to drink 75 to 150 ounces of water per day. If you don’t like the taste of plain water, try infusing a pitcher of cold water with various combinations of fresh fruits and herbs.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: You should aim to get at least five servings of fruits and vegetables per day, preferably including a rainbow of different-colored produce, as each color offers specific nutritional benefits. For example, red fruits and vegetables tend to improve heart health and support joints while yellow fruits and vegetables typically benefit digestion and enhance your body’s immune system.
  • Protein: Good sources of protein include lean meats such as chicken and turkey as well as nuts, seeds, and tofu. Adequate protein intake is key in helping to repair tissues damaged by years of substance abuse. Protein also helps to build lean muscle mass and raise your energy level.
  • Fiber: Fiber, preferably in the form of whole grains, helps keep your digestive tract moving. If you’re on a reduced-calorie diet, fiber also plays a crucial role in helping you keep your appetite under control between meals.
  • Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fat: Dietary fat gets a bad rap sometimes, but healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as the ones found in olive oil, nuts and avocados are necessary to promote healthy cell membranes.
  • Dark Chocolate: Dark chocolate is well known as a mood enhancer. A small piece of high-quality dark chocolate can be useful as a treat when recovering from addiction. Individually wrapped miniature bars can be helpful for portion control.

Moderation is key in building a healthy diet, but you should try to limit your consumption of the following:

  • Processed Foods: In most cases, processed foods are high in salt, sugar and fat while not providing the nutrients your body needs to recover from addiction. Keep consumption of processed foods to a minimum and focus on eating foods prepared from scratch as much as possible.
  • Saturated Fat: Saturated fats are those found in beef, pork, lamb and full-fat dairy products. In addition to being high in calories, saturated fats also raise the level of cholesterol in your blood and increase your risk of developing heart disease.
  • Refined Carbohydrates: Pastries, cake and white bread contain refined carbohydrates that can cause mood fluctuations. This can make it hard to control cravings to start using again.
  • Caffeine: Giving up coffee and soda can be a challenge, but caffeine will irritate inflamed digestive tissues. Caffeine’s stimulating effects may also reduce your willpower to resist drugs and alcohol.

The Benefits of Organic Food

It’s not an absolute requirement, but eating organic food whenever possible may aid in the process of addiction recovery. According to Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, organic produce contains 30 percent higher levels of antioxidants compared to conventionally grown counterparts.

Antioxidants are important in addiction recovery because they help boost the body’s immune system and protect cells from the free radical damage that can lead to cancer. Antioxidants also help improve the appearance of the skin and hair, which can provide a confidence boost to someone on the road to recovery.
best diet for recovering addicts

The following 12 foods are known as the “dirty dozen” and considered most likely to be contaminated with pesticide residue that can affect nutritional value. If you’re on a budget, these are the foods you should prioritize buying organic:

  • Strawberries
  • Peaches
  • Spinach
  • Apples
  • Cherries
  • Sweet bell peppers
  • Celery
  • Pears
  • Grapes
  • Nectarines
  • Lettuce
  • Potatoes

Snacking Smartly

Eating throughout the day can be helpful in addiction recovery because it promotes steady blood sugar levels and helps boost overall nutrient intake. Many nutritionists recommend three snacks per day: one between breakfast and lunch, one between lunch and dinner, and one before bed. The goal is to make sure you’re eating something every three to four hours to help keep your mood stable.

healthy food for recovering addicts

Examples of healthy snack choices include:

  • A handful of almonds or mixed nuts
  • Hardboiled egg
  • Fresh fruit with cheese or yogurt
  • Low-fat string cheese
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Air-popped popcorn with the seasonings of your choice
  • Low-sodium pretzels
  • Trail mix with nuts, raisins and other dried fruit
  • 100 percent fruit juice
  • Low-fat frozen yogurt
  • Smoothie made with fresh fruit and almond milk

healthy diet for recovering addicts

You should avoid snacks that are high in sugar, fat and salt without offering any key nutrients. This includes potato chips, ice cream, cookies, donuts, brownies, candy bars and soda.

A Healthy Diet for Recovering Addicts: Sample Meal Plans

If you’re not accustomed to watching what you eat, the idea of remaking your diet can seem a bit overwhelming. However, your recovery team can work with you to create a meal plan that fits your lifestyle and nutritional preferences.

Here’s an example of a balanced meal plan that would suit the needs of the recovering addict:

Day 1

  • Breakfast: ½ liter of water, eggs scrambled with spinach, 1 slice whole grain toast with butter and 1 orange
  • Snack: ½ liter of water, apple and a handful of almonds
  • Lunch: ½ liter of water, grilled chicken breast and side salad with assorted vegetables and balsamic dressing
  • Snack: ½ liter of water, hardboiled egg and carrot sticks
  • Dinner: ½ liter of water, salmon, steamed broccoli and brown rice
  • Snack: ½ liter of water, air-popped popcorn with grated parmesan, olive oil, finely chopped fresh rosemary and kosher salt

Day 2

  • Breakfast: ½ liter of water, oatmeal muffin and low-fat yogurt
  • Snack: ½ liter of water, low-fat string cheese and low-sodium pretzels
  • Lunch: ½ liter of water, vegetable soup and turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread
  • Snack: ½ liter of water and low-fat cottage cheese
  • Dinner: ½ liter of water, beans and rice, and small grilled chicken breast
  • Snack: ½ liter of water and trail mix with nuts and dried fruit

Counting Calories

best diet for recovering addictsYour recommended daily calorie intake depends on your age, gender and activity level as well as whether or not you are currently overweight. Your recovery team will help you set a calorie goal that best fits your unique needs.

Using a Dietary Supplement

When seeking treatment for drug and alcohol addiction, you may find your recovery team recommends taking a vitamin and mineral supplement. Although it’s preferable to get the nutrients your body needs from a balanced diet, a supplement can help fill in the gaps as you work toward recovery.

Dietary supplements used to aid in addiction recovery may include:

  • Amino acids to reconfigure brain chemistry and reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol
  • B-vitamin complex to normalize appetite and improve nerve function
  • Vitamin C to improve cellular function and boost your immune system
  • Vitamin A to support healthy organ function
  • Calcium and magnesium to reduce irritability during recovery
  • Iron to help with headaches, fatigue and depression
  • Potassium to reduce muscle cramps and fatigue
  • Zinc to improve liver, brain and immune system function
  • Probiotics to restore the delicate balance of gut flora and aid in digestion

If your doctor recommends taking a dietary supplement, ask for specific dosing instructions. Some supplements should be taken with a meal for best absorption, but others should be taken on an empty stomach. Following proper dosing procedures will help you get the maximum possible benefit from your supplement.

Find Help for Your Addiction

If you are ready to seek treatment for drug or alcohol addiction, 12 Keys Rehab can help. We are a holistic addiction treatment center focusing on treating the needs of the “whole person” via tools such as individual therapy, family counseling, and nutritional therapy. Our certified counselors work to determine individualized client treatment goals, allowing you to develop the skills you need to ensure a real, long-lasting recovery.

Contact us today to find out more about the programs we offer to people suffering from addiction.

The Addiction Blog