In our modern recovery programs, there is a gamut of dietary and nutritional offerings coming from the kitchens. Most are founded on the supervision of trained and accredited nutritionists, with an effort to put meals in front of clients that are well balanced and flavorful.
But part of what I’ve also seen in the recovery programs I’ve worked with, is to provide “comfort food” for the clients going through the roughest parts of detox. This includes access to unlimited amounts of sugar via sodas, sweets of all kinds (cookies, pastries, candy bars, desserts with every meal) and even jars of hard candy out on tables and countertops throughout the facility. I’ve seen private chefs preparing bacon and fried egg sandwiches, homemade donuts, fried chicken, french fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, and more to satisfy the cravings of high paying clients. The basic and understandable strategy, has been to get the clients to eat something, anything, during the worst parts of treating their addiction illness. Food that helps them feel something in their world is familiar, that cuts through their pain and sickness, and is perceived as a fun “reward” for their suffering is all good, right?? At the end of the day, the thinking seems to be to tackle the worst addictions first, and leave the lesser ones: smoking, caffeine dependency, bad eating habits, lack of physical exercise, for another day. The more a client becomes “well”, the more they’ll want to eat healthier, hopefully.
But what if a much stronger emphasis were placed on diet and nutrition from the very beginning of your recovery program, one in which every single thing going into the mouths of the clients were based on the notion of food as a metaphor for healing? What if your recovery program assiduously nurtured back your clients’ health with specific foods, specific natural supplements and vitamins, and specific education to recognize the harm or help that comes from every substance they want to eat or drink? Mood stabilization, bodily energy, and basic emotional vitality are the big three that are critical to any addict achieving those ‘lightbulb” moments about themselves. It’s been discovered in studies, for example, that addiction recovery programs that incorporate amino acid therapies into their nutrition program, achieve success rates up to 60 percent greater than those that do not.
From this point of view, sugar is the addict’s worst food enemy. It creates a seductive cycle of cravings, crashes, and weight gain. It is devastating to the internal workings of human physiology. It causes insulin resistance. It feeds cancer cells, it feeds candida yeast, it compromises the immune system. It causes inflammation and fluid retention. It depletes nutrients in the body, such as chromium, which in turn stabilizes blood sugar. Other food substances turn into sugar (glucose) within the body and do the same harm: white flour being the other big culprit. Sugar cravings don’t always have to be fed with candy or donuts – they are insidiously supported with breads, crackers, pastas, and cereals. On emotional terms, sugar feeds anger, hair trigger emotional reactions, depression, “high drama”, and the inability to focus, be calm, and to ruminate.
Other health and vitality robbers that might even be prolonging the detoxing efforts of your program on your clients:
- Hydrogenated fats (from packaged snacks, crackers, pastries, margarines, etc.) block precious essential fatty acid uptake in the cells. This wreaks havoc on hormone activity and causes inflammation and mood swings. In addition, the liver (already in distress from drug and alcohol abuse) can’t process these kinds of fats and begins to stress out.
- Additives, Preservatives, and “Excitotoxins” (from sulfites in dried fruit, MSG or hydrolyzed vegetable protein in such things as gravy mixes and canned foods, nitrates in bacon, deli meats, and other cured meats, aspartame and other artificial sugar substitutes, red dye #3 in fruit cocktails and prepared baked goods, to name but a few culprits) can trigger allergic reactions, headaches, and even long-term neurological problems.
- Six reasons to switch to organic versions of fruits, vegetables, meats, and milk
- Pesticides (chemicals which cause neurological side effects in humans)
- Growth Hormones (predominate in dairy cows and beef cattle; gives rise to need for more antibiotics as animals develop side effects from the hormones in their bodies; humans ingest all these drugs)
- Antibiotics (gives rise to drug-resistant bacteria and risk of salmonella)
- Irradiation (forms toxic by-products including benzene and formaldehyde)
- Sewage Sludge (from factory farming techniques, includes exposure to heavy metals)
- GMOs (tied to liver and kidney toxicity)
When the human body treats food as a toxin in the form of hidden allergic reactions, side effects can be subtle or dramatic and can include: headaches, increased heart rate, diarrhea, bloating, and low energy. Taste buds become de-sensitized, so nothing tastes good unless it’s super sweet – all subtlety is lost.
When food is used as a healing force, freshness begins to matter, the fullness of real whole foods begins to excite and awaken the senses naturally. The palate is reinvigorated. More importantly, the body begins to respond – energy levels rise and stay even, which in turn supports clear thinking, balanced moods, and less susceptibility to colds and flues (which can trigger depression).
A few of the super foods on my list for healing (this is but a small sampling):
Flax, nut, hempseed, and coconut based cereals
Nut or coconut flours for baking
Blueberries (fresh or frozen)
Alaskan wild caught salmon (fresh or frozen)
Stevia and xylitol (plant based sweeteners/sugar substitutes)
Full fat Greek-style yogurt
Figs, pears, payayas, avocados
Spinach, kale, and shitake mushrooms
Seaweed (in sheets, shakeable flakes, and powders)
Walnut oil, grapeseed oil, organic butter
Pumpkin seeds, raw almonds
From the spice rack. These very common and basic plants are miraculous. They are strong support for building immune system functioning, have anti-inflammatory properties, improve circulation and digestion, provide nausea relief, heart health, liver protection, act as detoxifying agents and improve sugar metabolism:
The top six are garlic, cayenne, ginger, turmeric, cilantro, and cinnamon.
Natural supplements which are the most highly regarded and most well-researched, and which are at the top of learned nutritionists involved in healing with them, are at the top of my list, too. Each initiates a chain reaction of improvements that will most certainly have head to toe effects on the person taking them. Most can be taken with prescription medications, but definitely should be supervised by a medical doctor who is familiar with their effects (if any) on certain prescriptions)
- High potency multivitamin and mineral regimens (helps decrease cravings and increases energy)
- Blood sugar control formula (should contain chromium, vanadium, lipoic acid, B vitamins, and herbs such as gymnema sylvestre and cinnamon; will help decrease sugar spiking, inflammation, and cravings)
- Green powders (barley grass, wheatgrass, chlorella, spirulina, seaweed; detoxifies, purifies blood, increases liver function, increases energy)
- Omega 3 EFAs (found in fish, flax, and borage, oils; anti-inflammatory, lifts moods, improves blood sugar levels, diminishes anger, anxiety, depression)
- Probiotics (such as acidophilus and other beneficial bacteria; rebalances gut for better digestion and immunity, helps extract maximum nutrients from food)
- Vitamin C with bioflavinoids (boosts heart protection, fights free radicals, improves immune system functioning)
The last, and oftentimes, most key element in working with a program that approaches food as healing metaphor, is to educate clients to these concepts through simple workshops, teach-ins, and support literature. Once a client is stabilized within the basic components of your recovery program, then they can become more involved from a proactive stance, by making their own meal choices (from a list of “good” menu options), participating in tending a kitchen garden with simple vegetables and herbs, and if house chores are assigned, helping with simple meal prep.
The idea is to help them make the connections between their physical, emotional, and mental health, and the food they are eating. To help set up habits that will sustain them once they are out of your recovery program and back into their “regular” lives. Just as making 12-step meetings is a vital part of sustained recovery, so is knowledge and daily implementation about healing foods and supplements. Wellness is not just absence of addictive behavior, wellness is a cultivation of everything that literally and metaphorically feeds the body, mind, and spirit.