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The Important Role That Nutrition Plays in Addiction Recovery

Chronic drug and alcohol use can significantly impact your entire system — your body, your brain, and your physical and mental health.

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A healthy diet and the proper nutritional fuel can do the following: 

  • Help your body and brain to heal 
  • Decrease physical and mental side effects of drug use 
  • Reduce cravings
  • Promote better sleep
  • Improve immune system functioning Help to balance the mind and body in recovery

When you feel better physically, you will be able to think more clearly and regulate your emotions more effectively. A nutritious diet during recovery is a powerful tool for improving your health and overall quality of life.

Key Facts About Nutrition During Recovery

  • In a study of people admitted to a public detox program with chronic substance abuse and dependence, almost all had poor diet and appetite, nearly a quarter were also malnourished, and half were deficient in vitamins or iron.
  • Substance abuse can lead to a general lack of nutrition, which can significantly damage the body and also create mental health issues. Proper nutrition is vital to restore body function and enhance mental health in recovery after sustained substance abuse.
  • Eating disorders and substance abuse and addiction co-occur at very high rates. As many as a third to half of those with an eating disorder also have a substance use disorder, making nutritional therapy even more important during addiction recovery.
  • A balanced diet can actually repair cells that are damaged due to stress and support a healthy immune system during addiction recovery.

How Does Substance Abuse Affect Your Nutrition?

Substance abuse can impact your nutrition in two main ways. Drugs and alcohol can directly harm your body, and drinking and drug use can also encourage poor lifestyle choices involving eating. 

Specific impacts on your nutrition due to substance abuse can include the following:

  • Loss of appetite: Many drugs and alcohol can suppress your appetite and make it harder to even want to eat.
  • Organ damage: Drugs and alcohol can directly damage organs, and malnutrition as a result of drug and alcohol use can cause organ damage.
  • Poor eating choices: Addiction impacts impulse control and motivation, which can influence your nutritional decisions and negatively affect your diet.
  • Weight gain or loss: Substances can stimulate or suppress appetite, which can lead to unhealthy weight gain or loss.
  • Mineral and vitamin deficiencies: Drugs and alcohol can leach the brain and body of essential vitamins and minerals that are necessary to function properly. 

The Effects of Nutrition While on Alcohol

Alcohol can negatively impact nutrition in a variety of ways. For one, it is a source of empty calories. Consuming alcoholic drinks can easily add 200 to 500 extra calories to your day with just two or three drinks. Alcohol can therefore lead to weight gain and poor dietary choices, which can also contribute to malnutrition and obesity. 

People with alcohol use disorder regularly consume 35 to 50 percent of their total daily calories in alcohol. They are commonly deficient in micronutrients and display a loss of muscle mass.

Alcohol also inhibits absorption of important nutrients, such as zinc and thiamine (vitamin B1), which can cause deficiencies and organ damage. 

The liver is commonly impacted by chronic alcohol consumption, as this is the organ that filters and metabolizes ethanol and toxins. More than a third of problem drinkers develop advanced liver disease or cirrhosis

. Thiamine deficiency caused by chronic alcohol use can cause irreversible brain damage in the form of Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which is a form of alcohol-induced dementia. 

Alcohol’s impact on nutrition can also damage the body in the following ways:

  • Lowered immune system
  • Alcohol-induced intestinal injury
  • Increased risk of lung injury and bacterial infection in the lung
  • Damage to the heart, which can cause stroke, cardiomyopathy, high blood pressure, and arrhythmias
  • Development of pancreatitis
  • Higher risk for developing many types of cancer

The Effects of Nutrition While on Opioid

Opioid drugs, such as heroin and prescription painkillers, can cause a variety of health issues. Their impact on nutrition can be related to the drugs’ impact on the body directly and also on the behaviors associated with chronic drug use. 

Drug addiction can trigger little interest in personal hygiene or health, for example, as more time is spent on getting, using, and recovering from drugs. A healthy and nutritious diet is largely overlooked. This can lead to malnutrition and unhealthy weight fluctuations. 

Heroin and opioid drugs are also often injected. This increases the odds for developing an infectious disease, such as hepatitis C or HIV, from using dirty needles. 

Opioid drugs also impact the gut, leading to microbiome imbalances and gastrointestinal issues. Studies have shown that morphine disrupts the intestinal barrier function, which can cause inflammation and the gut barrier to be compromised. Chronic opioid use can cause opioid-induced bowel dysfunction, which can include symptoms like constipation, nausea, vomiting, bloating, abdominal pain, hard stool, trouble completely evacuating, delayed digestion, gastro-oesophageal reflux, and anorexia. 

Opioids can cause blood sugar disorders, as studies have shown fasting blood sugar levels in people addicted to heroin to be four times higher than the control group. 

Overall, opioid addiction can drastically impact nutrition and cause a variety of physical and mental health issues related to nutritional complications.

The Effects of Nutrition While on Stimulants

Stimulant drugs, which include illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine as well as prescription medications for ADHD, can suppress the appetite and lead to malnutrition and drastic weight loss. These drugs can also disrupt neuroendocrine and metabolic regulation, which can make it difficult to consume and absorb enough calories to properly sustain the body and its necessary levels of functioning. 

Stimulants can keep a person up for days at a time. During these periods, electrolyte imbalances and dehydration are common. Long-term stimulant use can also lead to potentially permanent memory issues.

The Effects of Nutrition While on Marijuana

Marijuana tends to create the “munchies,” causing people to snack more and often make poor dietary choices when doing so. A study shows that people smoking marijuana consumed 40 percent more calories every day than those who did not. 

These calories are often in the form of junk food. This can contribute to significant weight gain and malnutrition, as the body is not getting the nutrients it needs to sustain itself. 

The Effects of Nutrition While on Sedatives (Benzos)

Sedatives, such as benzodiazepines or benzos, are central nervous system depressants. They cause drowsiness and can also lead to appetite suppression. 

Chronic benzo use can therefore lead to malnutrition, as not enough calories, or the right nutrients, are being consumed. Weight loss, nutrition and mineral deficiency, and associated organ and bone density damage can occur. Long-term benzo use can also cause cognitive decline that may be irreversible. 

Understanding the Role of Nutrients in the Body

Nutrients are essential for body and brain function. They play a role in body structure, provide energy, and regulate the body’s chemical processes. All of these functions are necessary for life. 

Some of the most important nutrients you need to survive include water, minerals, vitamins, protein, fats and fatty acids, and carbohydrates. All of these should be included in a healthy and balanced diet. 


Water is an essential part of any diet. Drinking enough water every day can help to prevent dehydration, maintain a normal body temperature, cushion and provide lubrication for your joints, protect your spinal cord and sensitive tissues, and eliminate waste through perspiration, urination, and bowel movements. 

Drinking enough water every day can help to improve brain function and mood regulation. It can also help to keep your organs functioning properly and manage body weight since water has no calories. 


Minerals serve a variety of purposes in the brain and body, helping to keep you healthy and keeping your brain, heart, muscles, and bones working the way they are intended to. Minerals are essential for the following functions:

  • Making hormones and enzymes 
  • Energy production and converting food into energy
  • Healing
  • Growth
  • Building strong teeth and bones
  • Controlling bodily fluids, both inside and outside cells. 

You can get the right amount of minerals through foods and in some cases supplements. Minerals you need can include both microminerals and trace minerals, which are as follows:

  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Phosphorus
  • Sulfur
  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Chloride
  • Iron
  • Iodine
  • Copper
  • Manganese
  • Fluoride
  • Zinc
  • Cobalt
  • Selenium


There are 13 essential vitamins necessary for cell development, growth, and function in virtually all aspects of the body. They are needed for metabolism and to support healthy bones, teeth, skin, nerves, tissues, mucous membranes, and red blood cell formation. They are also necessary to convert foods into energy. Vitamin deficiencies can cause a wide range of health problems. 

The following vitamins are necessary for bodily functions:

  • Vitamin A
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin K
  • Vitamin B1
  • Vitamin E
  • Vitamin B2
  • Vitamin B12
  • Vitamin B6
  • Biotin
  • Folic Acid
  • Pantothenic Acid

They can be found in many foods and also supplements, when necessary.


Every cell in your body contains protein, which is the building block of life. Protein is necessary for growth and development — to help your body make new cells and repair damaged ones. 

Protein is made up of a chain of amino acids, which include essential amino acids that must be supplied by food, nonessential amino acids that are made by the body breaking down protein, and conditional amino acids that are needed when the body is stressed or ill. 

Protein should make up 10 to 35 percent of your daily caloric intake to support your bodily functions. 

Fat & Fatty Acids

Fats in the diet provide a source of energy, help to carry fat-soluble vitamins, and work as the structural building blocks in the body. 

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that are necessary for bodily function and derived from food. They serve to regulate genetic function, and they are the starting point for creating the hormones that help with inflammation, the contraction and relaxation of artery walls, and regulate blood clotting. 

Omega-3 fatty acids impact the function of cell receptors in the cell membranes. They include EPA, DHA, and ALA.


Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the brain’s preferred energy source and the body’s main source of energy. They are obtained from foods and broken down by the body into glucose, which is a source of fuel for your cells, organs, and tissues. Carbs provide and store energy as well as spare fat and protein for other essential uses, and they build macromolecules. 

In addition to being an important energy source for the body and brain, carbs also promote digestive health. Carbs, and especially complex carbohydrates, are an essential part of a balanced and healthy diet for body and brain function.

How Does Nutrition Work in Addiction Recovery?

Nutrition is a vital component of addiction recovery that can help to improve your overall quality of life. The following steps can help you to create and stick to a nutritional plan in addiction recovery:

  1. Meet with your physician to discuss your medical and mental health needs.
  2. Work with a nutritionist to develop a plan for your specific diet.
  3. Assess your diet and identify unhealthy habits.
  4. Look to make positive lifestyle and dietary changes to promote healing.
  5. Stick to a structured meal plan and schedule.
  6. Drink enough water.
  7. Make changes as needed to support a healthy and balanced diet and body weight in recovery.

What Are the Typical Diet & Nutritional Guidelines for Addiction Recovery?

Each person’s needs in recovery are unique, so it’s important to consult with your treatment team when structuring a nutrition plan in recovery. Here are some general diet and nutritional guidelines to support sustained recovery: 

  • Get more complex carbs, such as whole grains and starchy vegetables.
  • Reduce caffeine intake.
  • Get enough protein, such as that found in lean meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, dairy products, and nuts.
  • Eat a balanced diet, high in foods containing vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, iron, and zinc.
  • Include fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark green, leafy vegetables.
  • Minimize processed products, refined sugar, and trans fats.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Eat consistent meals and control portions. It is often ideal to eat smaller meals more often to maintain your blood sugar levels and control cravings.

Co-Occurring Disorders: Eating Disorders & Substance Abuse 

Eating disorders and substance abuse are linked. Eating disorders and substance use disorders co-occur at rates between 17 percent and 46 percent, and each disorder can complicate the other. 

People with an eating disorder are five times as likely to use alcohol or illicit drugs compared to the general population. People with a substance use disorder are 11 times more likely to also have an eating disorder. 

Eating disorders can lead to substance abuse, and the reverse is also true. These conditions are complexly intertwined, as substance abuse can often be used to control weight. Diet and addiction can also lead to disordered eating and the potential for an eating disorder.

When two conditions occur at the same time in the same person, they are said to be co-occurring disorders, and they are optimally treated with dual diagnosis care methods. This means treating both conditions simultaneously. 

What Should Treatment Entail?

Substance use disorder treatment should include some form of nutritional therapy, even if the person doesn’t have a specific eating disorder. Nutrition can play such an important role in helping the body heal, controlling cravings, and promoting overall health and wellness. 

If the person has a diagnosed co-occurring eating disorder, treatment should be specialized. Therapy should address the disordered eating as well as the substance abuse. The goal of treatment is recovery on all fronts. 

Behavioral therapies, group and individual counseling sessions, relapse prevention strategies, education on nutrition, and support group meetings are all common aspects of a dual diagnosis treatment program for an eating disorder and addiction. 

Medical management is often needed to address the physical aspects of recovery. As a result, inpatient treatment is often the preferred option for those with disordered eating and substance abuse issues. 

Medications and recovery support services are beneficial for both substance abuse and eating disorders.

What Are the Top Foods to Have During Addiction Recovery?

In addiction recovery, your body is healing. It is important to eat a balanced diet that contains all five food groups: fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, and protein. Ideally, focus on whole foods, and avoid processed foods and refined sugars. 

Foods that are high in antioxidants support the immune system and enhance the production and release of positive neurotransmitters. These foods include the following:

  • Blueberries
  • Strawberries
  • Bananas
  • Dark leafy greens, such as kale, spinach, and parsley
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Lean meats, such as chicken, beef, fish, turkey, lamb, and pork
  • Dairy products
  • Eggs
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Celery
  • Papaya
  • Shrimp
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Tuna fish
  • Beans and lentils
  • Whole grains
  • Cheese
  • Soybeans
  • Sunflower seeds

Aim to include as many fresh produce as possible. Consult your nutritionist and physician regarding any supplements that could benefit your overall nutrition plan.

Updated May 9, 2023
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