The Impact of Diet and Nutrition on Recovery

A. All addicts in active use of alcohol and drugs are malnourished.

In order to help people recover, it is important to understand the impact of nutrition. It is astounding to consider that only fat contains more calories per gram than alcohol. As a result, while drinking, addicts experience a sense of fullness having eaten very little or nothing. These “empty calories” lead to poor eating habits and malnutrition. Drug abusers experience a similar effect. Alcohol and drugs actually keep the body from properly absorbing and breaking down nutrients and expelling toxins. This leads to a host of health problems. (see sidebar, “How Drugs & Alcohol Affect the Body”)

B. Restoring addicts to physical, as well as spiritual, health

The essence of recovery is changing negative behaviors into positive ones. Good nutrition, relaxation, and exercise all play an important role in successful change. Learning to make healthy food choices is important to achieving a healthy lifestyle.

Because they have neglected their diet, addicts experience gastrointestinal disorders such as diarrhea, constipation, and inability to digest foods properly, as well as a poor appetite. As a result, they have a special need for foods that are high in nutrients to rebuild damaged tissues, organs and regain appropriate functioning of the various systems including the nervous and gastrointestinal systems.

C. Nutrition actually impacts cravings for drugs and alcohol.

Every newly recovering addict struggles with cravings to use alcohol and drugs. Research has shown that a diet with the right types of high protein and high carbohydrate-rich foods can make a big difference.

Food affects mood. Along with amino acids, deficiency of nutrients like folic acid and the other B-complex vitamins also have a serious and negative impact. Sugar and caffeine can contribute to mood swings, so intake of both should be reduced during the early stages of recovery.

Alcohol and drug use prevents the body from properly processing two important amino acids, tyrosine, and tryptophan. They are responsible for the production of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin. These compounds are neurotransmitters that are essential for emotional stability, mental clarity, and a general state of well-being. Decreased levels of these neurotransmitters negatively affect mood and behavior.

Tyrosine is a precursor to the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and dopamine–chemical messengers that promote mental acuity and alertness. It is one nonessential amino acid found in protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, seafood, and tofu.

Tryptophan is integral to the production of serotonin, which has a calming effect and is important for proper sleep. It is found in foods such as bananas, milk and sunflower seeds, as well as turkey meat.


  • Go to the “Recovery Diet” for some practical suggestions for good eating choices for people in recovery.



Nutrition In Recovery by Margaret Soussloff, M.S. & Cara Zechello, R.D., Massachusetts Food Banks and Maria F. Bettencourt, MPH, Massachusetts Department of Public Health

Brain Food: Formulas for Aware Aging, Michelle Badash, New Hope Communications.

The Benefits of Exercise in Recovery

Exercise, like all things in recovery, should be taken in moderation. In order for an exercise program to work, it needs to be both consistent and frequent. Make time to exercise at least four times a week, and give yourself at least an hour per session.


  • Increases the metabolic rate so that calories are burned more efficiently even when we are at rest.
  • Burns fat stores and builds up muscle tissue. Muscle cells are metabolically active and burn calories, whereas fat cells are inert.
  • Increases free fatty acids, which better enable the body to process and utilize dietary fats.
  • Decreases total serum cholesterol and increased levels of high-density lipoproteins (HDLs), the “good fats” associated with lower risk of heart disease.
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Increases the levels of mood-elevating neurochemicals–such as the endorphins, so that we feel better mentally as well as physically.

Aerobic exercises are those that cause the body to use large amounts of oxygen (and burn calories) and prompt the heart and pulse rare to rise through steady, constant movement.

Aerobic exercises tend to involve the large muscle groups, such as those of the legs and arms.

They include:

walking – jogging – cycling – swimming – rowing – step training – cross country skiing – Stairmaster work – other active sports such as tennis or volleyball

Anaerobic exercises develop muscular strength and flexibility and do nor necessarily increase the pulse or heart rate. Anaerobic exercises include:

weight training – calisthenics

Getting an exercise program started:

  1. Choose an activity you like
  2. Choose your location
  3. Start slow
  4. Use appropriate dress
  5. Listen to your body’s cues
  6. Stick with it

Organizing the Addiction Counseling Process Part 5

In our last installment in this series we discussed, briefly, the importance of meeting the needs of each individual in the recovery program. To do this most effectively, a process of documentation is essential, using paper forms or computer-based data collection.   In residential recovery programs for the homeless, it is also important to adopt a team approach to working with our clients.

A.  Developing a system of documentation.     The essential elements include:

  1. Regularly updated recovery plans/contracts
  2. Daily progress notes
  3. Summaries of one-on-one counseling sessions

When all of these elements are in place, supervisors can get a good picture of what each counselor or chaplain is doing with each of the individuals with whom he or she is assigned work.   Besides serving as a measure of job performance, proper documentation makes it easier for another counselor to step in and keep working with the client if that is necessary.   Good documentation provides a permanent record that can be accessed if the individual leaves the program and returns at a later date.   And, it provides valuable information that may be used by other ministries or agencies that work with the client in the future.

B.         Developing a team approach – The centerpiece of the team approach is a weekly meeting that involves all staff members who work with program participants.   IN this meeting, each chaplain or counselor updates the rest of the team on the progress of his or her clients.   This includes the issues each client is working on, any special challenges her or she faces, and the specific recovery-oriented tasks that have been assigned.   Time is afforded for feedback from other team members. Combining a simple written documentation system with this sort of team approach creates an important level of accountability.   Best of all, counselors and chaplains benefit from the insight and advice of their peers.   This is sure to result in more effective approaches to meeting the needs of people they are helping.   Does a team approach violate confidentiality?   The answer is “no” if clients are informed of the team approach when they first start the program and as long as team members do not discuss what is shared

C.         Why a written recovery plan? – To truly meet needs on an individual, we must first know what his or her needs are!   We know homeless addicts need food and shelter.   They need a personal relationship with Christ and need to stop using alcohol and drugs. After this, things much more complex.   If we don’t help them to walk through their deeper problems, we are in danger of “missionizing” our clients.   By this I mean teaching them to live successfully in the mission but not preparing them to live a healthy, sober Christian life when they leave.

D.       An effective recovery plan begins with a comprehensive intake process— In the first week of an individual’s stay, it is vital that his or her primary counselor — or a staff member specializing in intakes — spend adequate time with them for program orientation and data gathering.   Instead of hand out list of rules and expectations, staff members need to discuss each one of them with the new program participant. This should be in the form of a contract that is signed by both client and counselor.   The new program member must indicate that he or she agrees to the expectations and understands that noncompliance to certain requirements can lead to dismissal. After this understanding is reached, the data gathering process begins.

The best approach is what might be called a “diagnostic interview” where the staff member uses a questionnaire to obtain information that will be used later in the counseling process.   The intake process needs to be very thorough. We certainly don’t want to learn after two weeks in the program that the person has AIDS or that they have an outstanding warrant in another state or county.   These issues, and many others, need to be discussed in a process that can that more than one session.

The intake/diagnostic interview should gather information address all of the following areas:

  1. Family, cultural and ethnic background
  2. Family of origin relationships
  3. Use history – alcohol
  4. Legal/criminal history:
  5. Medical history
  6. Treatment history
  7. Suicide assessment
  8. Current emotional status
  9. Nutritional assessment
  10. Education
  11. Employment history
  12. Financial assessment
  13. Military experience
  14. Social relationships
  15. Significant life experiences
  16. Marital/relationship history
  17. Client’s impression of problem
  18. Counselor’s impressions/observations

For downloadable forms and other helpful information for creating recovery plans, see theGuide to Effective Rescue Mission Recovery Programs