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Maintain a Well-Balanced Diet in Aftercare

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Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.
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Content Overview

In the depths of addiction, a person’s life is often so consumed with drugs and alcohol that they fail to consider the importance of proper diet and nutrition. Without the benefit of healthy foods, the body and brain cannot function well, which makes the recovery process more demanding and less promising. Someone serious about maintaining abstinence from alcohol and other drugs should place an increased focus on healthy eating habits to undo the damage of substance abuse.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Appetite & Nutrition?

Alcohol and other drugs might offer short-term pleasure, but chronic substance abuse can inflict tremendous amounts of damage on the body.

In general, substance use can exact a toll on health in a couple of ways:1

  • Indirectly, substances result in detrimental lifestyle changes including eating a diet of low-quality foods and irregular/sporadic eating
  • Certain substances can also impact physical health directly by injuring major organs and disrupting other crucial systems throughout the body

With regard to the first point, someone addicted to or physically dependent on alcohol or other drugs will exhibit compulsive behaviors related to finding and using their substance of choice.2 They often don’t have the time, attention, or resources available to think about eating healthy meals or to care if they have had enough water to drink due to their focus on drug or alcohol abuse.

The physical harm of substance abuse occurs in two ways

Someone who abuses substances in the long-term will almost certainly encounter some health problems related to their drug or drugs of choice:3
  • Opioids: This class of drugs significantly impacts digestion and the gastrointestinal system. People abusing opioids, such as heroin and prescription painkillers, will experience slowed gastrointestinal activity, which can result in chronic constipation and decreased appetite. When an individual abruptly quits, opioid withdrawal symptoms that could have an additional negative impact on nutrition and electrolyte balance include diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting
  • Stimulants: Drugs like prescription medications for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), cocaine, and methamphetamine (crystal meth) can speed physiological processes such as heart and breathing rate and decrease appetite. Stimulant users may abuse these substances in binges where they will go days without food or water, resulting in poor nutrition, dehydration, and electrolyte imbalance. Long-term abuse could ultimately lead to malnutrition or severe weight loss
  • Marijuana: Unlike stimulants, marijuana can increase appetite leading users towards unhealthy weight gain from the excessive intake of fats, sugar, and overall calories

Arguably, the substance most responsible for nutritional harms is alcohol.

Alcoholics may consume too many calories from the substance itself and not enough from healthy foods, which often results in nutritional deficits and dehydration.3 Deficiencies of vitamins like B1, B6, and folic acid are very common in people who drink excessively and can lead to hematologic disorders and permanent brain damage.3

Chronic alcohol use can also result in inflammation of the upper gastrointestinal tract (esophagus and stomach) and damage to other organs important for processing and absorbing food, including the pancreas and liver.3 Due to the harm caused by alcohol, the body may be unable to properly balance calories, proteins, fluids, and electrolytes.

Long-term drinking can result in:

  • Malnutrition
  • Diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • Osteoporosis
  • Liver damage/cirrhosis of the liver
  • Seizures
  • Birth defects and poor development in children with mother who drank during pregnancy

The brain is greatly affected by substance use and addiction as well. Drugs and alcohol directly disrupt the normal release and absorption of neurotransmitters, and since the production of these chemical messengers is dependent on an adequate supply of certain nutrients to begin with, substance related malnutrition can additionally impair healthy and balanced neurotransmission.4

Neurotransmitters affected by substance use

These include:4
  • Serotonin–helps to manage mood, sleep, pain, and appetite
  • Endorphins–associated with pain signaling, stress relief, and pain management
  • GABA–linked to relaxation and calm
  • Dopamine and norepinephrine–work together to influence energy, motivation, and focus

There is no doubt alcohol and other drugs negatively impact your appetite and nutrition. Because of this, your mission is to limit the impact by eliminating drug use as quickly as possible.

Making Positive Changes

Making the decision to enter treatment and begin on the road to recovery can be quite daunting or overwhelming, but it is the best choice you can make for your health and happiness. Professional addiction treatment is the safest way to begin recovery and the surest way to establish a long-term abstinence.2

Many people choose to enter treatment in an inpatient or residential setting, which provides 24-hour care, support, and treatment.

Inpatient treatment programs allow for a separation of the individual from their previous using environment so that they may focus on their recovery in a drug-free, highly structured atmosphere. Inpatient rehab is very beneficial because the person can begin making positive changes without being distracted by environmental drug triggers or stressors.

Rather than focusing only on the substance addiction, rehabs offer a comprehensive list of services that target the individual’s:2

  • Mental health issues
  • Family/relationship issues
  • Financial and employment needs
  • Housing and transportation concerns
  • Physical and medical health

Not all rehab programs offer the same services, so it’s important to do your research when looking for a program that’s right for you. Many facilities understand the importance of diet and nutrition during addiction recovery. These treatment programs may provide diet and nutritional education to their patients. They will likely have a nutritional counselor on staff, who understands the needs of people in recovery, and will create an individualized nutrition plan based on the patient’s needs and health. By learning about the duration and intensity of the substance use, they can identify possible nutritional gaps and direct the person towards foods that will restore and improve on their previous level of health and well-being.

These programs serve nutritious, balanced meals and encourage healthy snacking during the resident’s stay. Sometimes these programs employ gourmet chefs who can provide delicious and upscale meals as well.

healthy food

Eating a healthy diet in rehab is easy because patients do not have the ability to shop for treats, overindulge in unhealthy foods, or stop at the nearest fast food restaurant. The rehab staff controls all aspects of diet and food options to establish a successful recovery.

Some people in recovery might find the idea of healthy food and drink unappealing as they have previously focused on calorically dense and convenient foods. At this point, it will be key to keep in mind that drugs offer immediate gratification but long-term distress while healthy foods promote long-term health and happiness.

Rehab establishes a solid foundation for recovery and support for your transition towards healthy eating, but it will be your duty to continue the positive lifestyle after treatment ends. Ideally, your rehab will connect you to nutritional aftercare, such as a nutritional counselor, that can check on your diet plan outside of residential treatment.

Post-treatment Nutrition

So, your diet was completely managed by program staff while you were in rehab, but now that you are back home, the decisions are all yours. Will you return to your previous state of poor nutrition, or will you follow the healthy patterns created for you during rehab?

One way to maintain your healthy diet is continuing professional addiction treatment.

By receiving step-down treatment on an outpatient basis, you can meet with a team of therapists, case managers, and physicians with the goal of combining relapse prevention skills and balanced diet to maintain your abstinence while living at home.

Individual, group, and family counseling sessions are helpful to identify and address people, places, and situations that encourage substance use and poor self-care.2 Medications can be an important component of long-term recovery. If treatment medications are indicated, they can reduce the unwanted impact of cravings, depression, and anxiety to leave you in a position to make better recovery choices.2

the right diet

Outside of professional treatment, available options like support groups and sober living facilities offer encouragement and fellowship from others with similar experiences who are all working towards healthier lifestyles.2 During meetings, these people can suggest tips and coping skills for relapse prevention and lasting sobriety.

People in recovery can misinterpret hunger as drug cravings.1 Substance use and relapse can result from this confusion, so working with people to differentiate your hunger from drug cravings can produce a safer and longer recovery.

To give yourself the best chance of success with your post-treatment nutrition, employ these healthy eating guidelines:1

  • Build a consistent mealtime routine
  • Eat nutritious meals and snacks
  • Choose foods low in fat
  • Find more foods that are high in protein, complex carbohydrates, and dietary fiber
  • Check with your treatment team about using vitamin and mineral supplements like:
    • B-complex
    • Zinc
    • Vitamin A
    • Vitamin C
  • Avoid too much caffeine and tobacco
  • Drink plenty of water to re-establish electrolyte balance and reduce the risk of dehydration

Beyond diet plans, you can also improve your physical health by getting the right amount of quality sleep, since sleep can help repair some damage.1 Something as natural as sleep can improve your recovery outcomes.

Eating well will be a rewarding experience in time. Maintaining a healthy diet in recovery will:4

  • Correct chemical imbalances in the brain
  • Reverse nutritional deficits
  • Improve digestive problems
  • Boost energy
  • Reduce depression and anxiety
  • Improve mental clarity

With all of these factors working in harmony, you will be more likely to enjoy a long-lasting recovery.

Sticking to Your Plan

Making a change can be challenging, but the positive impacts of a healthy diet are so beneficial. To avoid a backslide towards old habits, you’ll need to devote a significant amount of attention and energy to your new plan.

Being honest about the challenges you face is a wonderful way to make your plan more successful.

Rather than ignoring your struggles, acknowledge some potential cons of healthy eating like:5

  • Healthy foods are expensive
  • Healthy foods take longer to prepare
  • I can’t eat as many foods I love
  • I have to buy foods that I don’t care for
  • My family and friends are resisting the healthy changes

These are problems most people experience when changing their diets, so you will want to minimize their influence. It’s true that many

eating the right food

For example, many people utilize food prep as a way to stick to their plan. With food prep, you buy large quantities of healthy foods to save money and prepare multiple meals at once to cut down on overall cooking time.

To combat the resistance from family members, get them involved in the shopping and cooking process. Once they take part in the activity, they can begin to appreciate your mission. The people in your life can also help by keeping you focused and accountable for your healthy eating.

Adding physical activity can be another way to maintain your diet plan and your recovery.

Engaging in even short periods of exercise can:5

  • Improve physical health
  • Improve your self-esteem
  • Lower your weight
  • Increase your energy
  • Reduce the risk of health problems
  • Provide the opportunity to meet new, healthy supports

Becoming drug-free is the perfect occasion to investigate and revise all aspects of your physical being. By eating healthy foods, you can help reverse the damage inflicted by drugs and alcohol while boosting your resources to fight back against addiction and prevent future relapse.


  1. S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. (2018). Substance Use Recovery and Diet
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide.
  3. S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. (2018). Substance Use Recovery and Diet
  4. Many Hands Sustainability Center. (2010). Nutrition in Addiction Recovery
  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. (2017). Changing Your Habits for Better Health.

Last Updated on July 7, 2021
Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff
The editorial staff of American Addiction Centers is made up of credentialed clinical reviewers with hands-on experience in or expert knowledge of addiction treatment.
Related Tags
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