When I left for college, people warned me about The Freshman 15 – those 15 pounds many freshmen gain when they have access to cafeteria food, junk food and late night pizza runs. After working in treatment centers for over 20 years, I coined a new phrase – The Treatment 20.
Newly recovering clients often enter treatment underweight and malnourished. Mood disorders, alcohol and drug abuse may have created nutritional havoc, resulting in serious weight fluctuations.
The digestive system’s reaction to most opiates and methamphetamines is to slow down or turn off the hunger signal and stop digesting food. When people stop drinking and taking drugs, their hunger returns with a vengeance.
People new in recovery are often ravenously hungry. The body craves nutrients it has not had in a long time. Due to physiological imbalances, sugar cravings can become another addiction.
Often the recovering digestive system is not quite up to par. Normal metabolism is slow to recover, and the bowel is usually damaged or sluggish. In response to the sharp increase in food intake and with no way to process all of it, the body has no other choice but to store the food as added weight. And so begins the gaining of the 20 or so pounds people may put on in treatment.
Newly prescribed medications for conditions untreated during a person’s addiction can also be the cause of weight gain. Weight gain and late night cravings are side effects of some medications. Lastly, but not unimportantly, people in early recovery may not know what to do with idle time. They may find the feelings they are experiencing difficult to tolerate; therefore they may turn to food to distract, numb and comfort.
Healthy food choices are important in new recovery. Weight gains can challenge and trigger the newly clean and sober person. Some return to drugs to lose the weight, reactivating the addiction cycle. Others may go on crash diets which can be chaotic to both their digestive system and their emotions. Former eating disorder behaviors may resurface and can be very serious.
It may feel as though two hamburgers, fries, a shake and a bag of chips are what you need; it is just a craving – similar to the cravings for drugs and alcohol. Junk food is a temporary fix. Though the food tastes good, the benefits are short-lived; and the consequences of poor eating habits are not worth it.
When your body stores extra weight during new recovery, remind yourself that this too shall pass. Some of this weight gain is probably necessary to help your body rejuvenate itself. If needed, the extra weight can be dealt with later.
The most important thing to remember is that sobriety is your number one priority, not losing weight. When intense hunger or craving is present during your early days of recovery, remember healthy, nutritious food is essential for healing and jump-starting a healthy metabolism.
Instead of those two hamburgers, have only one on a whole grain bun with avocado slices. Have a big salad with your favorite dressing on the side. Make homemade soda using mineral water and some peach juice. Freeze a container of Greek yogurt and enjoy that instead of ice cream.
Go for a walk after dinner; avoid the donuts and cookies at your next meeting. When cravings for soda, sugar and junk food arise, talk to your therapist or sponsor about it. Be sure to have protein with breakfast every day to balance out your blood sugar.
Giving in to food cravings is a slippery slope. Use the tools you are learning in recovery to protect yourself. You deserve to have a healthy body and a strong recovery.
Victoria Abel, MA, MNT, is the founder and owner of Center for Addiction Nutrition. She has worked in the addiction counseling field for 20 years as a family, primary, eating disorders and trauma therapist. She is also a nutrition therapist working with people healing from addiction, mood disorders, cancer and other chronic illnesses. She teaches at Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona, and lectures nationally on addiction nutrition.