At two years sober, I decided to get help with my physical recovery – something, I feel, is often neglected in traditional recovery programs. While I had dealt with my alcoholism, I had transferred addictive behaviors toward food. I felt horrendous. I had to completely overhaul my relationship with food. I had no idea what good nutrition looked like; and I certainly didn’t know that food can be harnessed to enhance one’s recovery. Three years later, I have lost a good chunk of that weight, I’m healthy, active, and I have never felt physically and mentally better. I just wish I had started sooner! I want to share with you what I have learned about eating well.
In my previous post, I talked about the parallels between drug addiction and food addiction. I didn’t understand why I was eating in such a harmful way. I thought I lacked willpower and self-control. However, I discovered that I wasn’t to blame for the food choices that I had made. Eating high-carbohydrate and highly palatable foods were my brain’s way of seeking to replace “feel good” chemicals that I had depleted in my active addiction. Added to the influence of the food messaging – compelling us to eat when we aren’t even hungry – that we see in everyday advertising, I faced quite a challenge. But once I understood those factors and stopped blaming myself, I could educate myself on what eating well looked like.
The Path of Discovery
I had little idea of what a balanced meal looked like. I’d seen the USDA My Plate recommendations – the most widely used infographic explaining a balanced meal – but I felt that it lacked real-life relatability. It didn’t explain what foods I was sensitive to – having a brain predisposed to addictive patterns. It didn’t explain what I should aim for with my goal to lose weight. I needed a simple and straightforward approach to food; one that is balanced and sustainable, and aims for me to feel well.
Then there were the unhelpful terms we see: clean eating and good nutrition. They made me cringe. I think those terms signify attaining a level of perfectionism – they’re often associated with the latest [skinny] health guru or coach on Instagram or Facebook, which simply perpetuates our unrealistic expectations of what being healthy looks like (stick thin or muscular, tanned and glowing skin).
Recovery, for me, is about doing away with unhelpful terms and to stop aiming for perfectionism. It is about learning to live a balanced life. I wanted to make my life easier, to feel well, and have the energy to support that.
I knew about the benefits of eating well and exercising – we all do. It reduces our risk of heart disease, can lower cholesterol, keep our immunity high and ward of infections, and lower our weight. But, I have found that the benefits are not enough to effect change for a lot of people in recovery. For some, stopping drugs and stopping drinking alcoholically is enough. They don’t see the harm in eating poor quality food.
There is also a perception that eating well is too much to take on. I’d argue that making a few small changes actually enhances recovery: you can have more energy, sleep better and have a bit more get up and go.
I am not a nutritional guru and I certainly don’t eat perfectly. My approach to health and wellness is one of realism and practicality – based on first-hand experience – making it work for me, in my busy life. A clean and lean muscle machine is unsustainable, in my view. After all, recovery is the biggest decision we make in our lives; everything else we do should be in support of that. Eating well does exactly that: it supports your life and it helps you cope with stress.
Why don’t we do away with those unhelpful terms and replace them with the goal of eating real, wholesome food that makes you feel great and gives you energy to achieve all the things you want in your recovery? Eating well and enjoying food shouldn’t be obsessively counting calories or points. It shouldn’t be about weighing yourself and your food all the time – and attaching your self-worth to the figure on the scale.
What Does Eating Well Look Like?
Simply, eating single-ingredient foods – the ones you find around the outer edges of the supermarket – and making them into delicious meals that are vibrant and make you feel good. It’s food that was grown in the ground, not processed in a factory and pumped full of hormones. Specifically, this is what it looks like:
Protein is essential for energy helping you feel full. I found that a lot of my cravings dissipated when I ate more protein. I aim to make it around a third of my meal. You can make it more interesting with marinades, spice rubs, and seasoning. Choices include: chicken, fish (particularly oily fish), seafood, and meats (opt for leaner cuts).
Fruits are full of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants — which keep your body functioning well and boost your immune system. I eat fresh berries, pears, bananas, kiwi and frozen fruits (much cheaper and they retain a high nutrient value — be sure to check that they don’t have added sugar). Fruit is particularly great teamed with a handful of nuts — that always gets me through the mid-morning and mid-afternoon energy slumps.
Vegetables should be fresh or frozen — try to avoid canned. I eat dark green vegetables like kale, broccoli and spinach. Root vegetables are a great alternative to potatoes and rice, such as butternut squash or pumpkin. I load up on vegetables — they are full of fiber, vitamins and minerals. Fruits and vegetables make up around a third of my plate. The last third is made up of carbohydrates and healthy fats.
Carbohydrates are essential for energy. I eat a small portion of whole grains, like brown rice, quinoa, whole oats, whole wheat bread (with no added sugar), or sweet potatoes with each meal.
Fats (healthy oils, nuts and seeds) are essential for overall health, body composition and feelings of fullness and satisfaction. For example: sunflower seeds, chia seeds, almonds, walnuts, olive oil.
Creating Your Own Plan
You can personalize these recommendations based upon your goals. For example, if you wanted to lose weight, you might want to reduce the grains, and increase protein, vegetables and fats. Be sure to talk to an expert about your goals to make sure your body is supported in the right way.
If this feels too much, start with one balanced meal a day and see how you feel. Two weeks later, try a second meal. Change takes time and it is best effected slowly in a way that isn’t overwhelming.
Eating well does not have to be complicated. Taking control of what you eat and feeding your body in the right way will enhance your recovery. You don’t need to subscribe to weight loss clubs, fast, go on juicing diets or survive on supplements. Just keep it simple. That way, it will fit into your life and you’re far more likely stick at it.
About the Author: Olivia Pennelle
Writer, blogger, nutrition and recovery advocate, Olivia Pennelle (Liv), is in long-term recovery from addiction.
Liv passionately believes in a fluid and holistic approach to sobriety. Her popular site, Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, is a resource for the journey toward health and wellness in recovery. For Liv, the kitchen represents the heart of the home: to eat, share, and love.