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The Pro-Recovery Diet: Q&A With Our Nutritionist

A table of healthy, natural foods.
The pro-recovery diet at The Raleigh House emphasizes lean proteins and includes healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, vegetables and fruits.

The pro-recovery diet at The Raleigh House emphasizes lean proteins and includes healthy fats, complex carbohydrates, vegetables, and fruits.

With everything that goes into a holistic treatment program, nutrition can be overlooked by many treatment providers. What should you or your loved one eat during treatment and recovery? Are you allowed to eat out at restaurants? Should your loved one have sugar or dairy?

These are all common questions about one’s nutrition when trying to recover from substance misuse. At The Raleigh House, our addiction treatment programs in Denver include a pro-recovery diet and nutrition education spearheaded by our Master Chef and certified nutritionist.

Keep reading to learn what foods you should eat and which foods you should avoid. You’ll also read from our certified nutritionist, Portia, about the pro-recovery diet, how eating the right foods heals the body and brain after addiction, and how we approach nutrition during treatment at The Raleigh House.

Nutrition for Those With Addiction: What to Eat and What to Avoid

Drug and alcohol addiction robs your body of essential nutrients leading to decreased energy levels, increased inflammation, and a weakened immune system.

Without a healthy diet, those recovering from substance use may experience these and other health-related effects of addiction long after they stop using drugs. This is why good nutrition is so important – especially for those in recovery.

What to Eat for Better Brain & Body Health

  • Food rich with omega-3s:This essential fatty acid is known for its anti-inflammatory effects. It can also help improve depression, anxiety, and ADHD. It’s not just good for your mental health, either. The benefits of omega-3 fatty acids extend to other parts of your body, like your heart and eyes.

    How to get it: Certain fish are chock full of omega-3s. Salmon, tuna, pollock, mackerel, and cod contain some of the highest levels. Not a seafood person? Avocados, eggs, and olive oil are your next best bet.

    Foods like salmon, avocado, and eggs are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for the body and brain.

  • Food high in protein: Habitual drug use wreaks havoc on how our brains produce and respond to the neurotransmitter dopamine. Amino acids like the ones found in protein are essential for neurotransmitter production and nurturing a recovering brain. Protein is also great for building muscle mass, especially when combined with plenty of exercise.

    How to get it: Meat is probably the most obvious source of protein. If you’re a carnivore, choose leaner meats like fish and poultry, but even an occasional steak or burger is okay. If meat is not your thing, double down on walnuts and other nuts.

  • Food containing iron & vitamin E: People who are iron deficient may have a harder time with memory and attention span. Iron also helps us metabolize protein, reduce fatigue, and increase energy levels. Vitamin E, on the other hand, is great for protecting the brain and body from harmful free radicals.

    How to get it: Most of us know we’re supposed to eat our veggies, and there’s a very good reason to do so. Dark green vegetables like kale and spinach are loaded with iron and vitamin E. Not a fan of green, leafy things? Try some sunflower seeds. They may be tiny, but they pack a powerful punch of vitamin E.

  • Food high in vitamin C: Vitamin C has long been known as an important component of a healthy immune system, but it also offers tons of other health benefits. Vitamin C is good for heart and eye health and may also help protect us from cancer and stroke.

    How to get it: Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruits are all great sources of vitamin C. But believe it or not, red and green peppers contain more of this essential vitamin than any of those citrus fruits.

  • Food packed with antioxidants: When it comes to neutralizing free radicals and preventing damage to our DNA, antioxidants are where it’s at! Plus, they’re also great for heart health, eye health, and warding off dementia.

    How to get it: Antioxidants are found in many foods, most notably “superfoods” like blueberries and acai berries. But you can also get them from coffee and dark chocolate containing at least 70% cacao.

Foods Those Recovering From Addiction Should Avoid

This list probably won’t be too surprising to you. And these foods aren’t just bad for people in recovery—they’re bad for everyone. Eating too much can increase our chances for all kinds of problems, from cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure to cancer. Just to refresh your memory, here are a few things to watch out for the next time you hit the grocery store or go out for a bite to eat.

  • Anything containing high-fructose corn syrup: It’s fake sugar with real health consequences.
  • Anything containing trans-fat: Also called “partially hydrogenated oil.”
  • Foods high in sodium & nitrates: Sorry, bacon, that goes for you too.

Q&A: Nutrition in Addiction Recovery at The Raleigh House

Now that you know the types of foods that can help you recover, learn from our certified nutritionist, Portia, about what the pro-recovery diet is like at the Raleigh House, how eating the right foods heals the body and brain after addiction, and how we approach nutrition during treatment.

Q: What is the pro-recovery diet like at The Raleigh House?

A: We use nutrition and nutritional supplementation to support and repair the biochemical deficiencies predisposing someone to use a mind-altering substance or have mental health issues.

Basically, the nutrition that we teach, the foods that we recommend and encourage clients to eat as part of their pro-recovery diet, include things like protein foods, healthy fats—the omega-3s, omega-6s, and omega-9s—and then complex carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. And each one plays a different part.

We also need to take stuff out that will hurt the body. Our pro-recovery protocol includes minimal sugar, minimal white flour, or simple carbohydrates like white rice, white bread, and white pasta. We use brown rice or brown pasta. We have whole grain, gluten-free bread because gluten tends to exacerbate gut problems. We really use a clean, basic diet when they’re at The Ranch, where we can control it.

Q: You mentioned the term “neurotransmitters.” What are those?

A: To make what’s called neurotransmitters, things like serotonin, dopamine, endorphins, and GABA – which are our feel-good transmitters. Those are the brain hormones that allow us to feel pleasure. They allow us to feel happy, calm, and in charge, and dopamine gives us energy, focus, and motivation.

Those neurotransmitters are created in the brain and the gut by a combination of amino acids, which we get from proteins and co-factor nutrients—like vitamin B, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, etc.

I would say the pro-recovery diet is protein-heavier initially, especially in early recovery for the clients. This is because they really need those amino acids that come from the protein to make the brain’s neurotransmitters. So, we need the amino acids and the co-factor nutrients, which equals neurotransmitter production.

Q: What else is part of the pro-recovery diet?

A: We also support the nutrition piece at The Raleigh House with targeted nutritional supplements. All the supplements we use you can effectively get from foods or plants—we’re not using any pharmaceuticals. That’s the doctor’s area of expertise. We just use natural supplements like targeted amino acids and co-factor nutrients like fish oil. We also use some herbs for liver rejuvenation, sleep, and gut repair.

Q: What do you like about the pro-recovery diet?

A: The more I used it, the more I saw the success my clients were having with their long-term sobriety. And not only that, but they were also less anxious, less depressed, they were more balanced, calm, and able to access the tools they need to be successful in recovery.

For example, in therapy—both group and individual—they were able to really think through their choices, rather than their impulsive brain. And that’s also a biochemical piece. Impulsivity is when an individual is working out of their sympathetic nervous or limbic system and feeling like they need to problem solve right here and right now impulsively.

This idea of fueling our brain and body to repair those biochemical deficiencies allows us to work out of our parasympathetic nervous system and prefrontal cortex, which is our rational, reasoning brain. And that helps us make better choices.

And when the addicted population acts out of that prefrontal cortex brain, and they have all these options in front of them because they’ve been through treatment, they make better choices and have long-term success in their recovery.

Q: What does the pro-recovery diet help improve?

A: A piece of recovery that is critically important is keeping the blood sugar levels stable. We need to keep blood sugar levels stable because when blood sugar dips and spikes, our bodies go into that emergency mode and back into the sympathetic nervous system, which is our fight or flight body system. And again, that creates that impulsive decision-making state.

Another issue with this is the body starts to produce another chemical called cortisol, or adrenaline, which also lends itself to impulsive decision-making and is always a danger factor for those in recovery. We want to keep the cortisol and adrenaline production down, and we only want to produce it when we need it—when we’re in a state where we really need to be fighting or flighting, not when we’re just a little bit stressed out.

Furthermore, when clients first come in, we really encourage gut repair protocol. This is because a lot of clients come in with a ravaged gut. And when your gut is not healthy, you’re not absorbing or using the nutrients you’re eating, and you’re not producing serotonin, your anti-depressant. About 95 percent of serotonin is produced in your gut, so if you have an unhealthy gut, you’re not producing that serotonin.

If there’s a balance of bad gut bacteria and a low amount of good gut bacteria, your immune system is going to be really low, which isn’t going to lend itself to overall healing – both brain and body healing.

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Q: How do you interact with clients during treatment?

A: The role that I play is helping clients get to a point where they work with their primary therapist to consistently access all the tools needed to recover and not sort of fall off and go back to feeling bad and feeling like they need to use their substance.

When they get into the outpatient program, I come in every other week, and we go through the food they’re buying, what their breakfast looks like, etc. We really support that nutritional change because that’s one of the most difficult things for people.

Oh, you’re telling me that milk’s not something that’s going to be healthy for me. Or you’re saying that I have to cut out my sugar? Those challenges come in, so we troubleshoot those challenges weekly.

We don’t just send them out with a diet and say good luck because, frankly, that’s not going to work. But if we troubleshoot the issues that come up and encourage the clients to do the best they can, add the proteins in or minimize the sugar and processed foods, cook more at home, and use the foods on the protocol, they really recognize that they feel better, sharper and want to engage in their recovery.

And then I leave that to their primary therapist, and they can then engage in the emotional and spiritual challenges that come up that also exacerbate their addiction.

Q: Any final thoughts on nutrition during addiction recovery?

A: I always tell my clients that you don’t need to be perfect with the pro-recovery diet. I recommend an 80/20 split. So, if 20 percent of the time, you really want that bowl of ice cream—have it—but have it with your protein foods, healthy fats, fruits, veggies, and complex carbohydrates intermingled throughout the day. Consistency is important, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.

The other piece that is so critical to someone in recovery is avoiding skipping meals. The number one cause of biochemical relapse is missed meals, followed by a diet of all sugar. It’s detrimental to the brain and sends you into that fight or flight mode, where you become very impulsive and make bad decisions.

This is about feeding the brain, to create that healing and neurotransmitter production and keep blood sugar levels stable.

Make Nutrition Part of Your Ongoing Addiction Recovery Plan

Drug addiction rehab and recovery isn’t just about your use of drugs and alcohol. It’s about changing your whole lifestyle – from how you cope with your emotions to how you eat.

This is why our addiction treatments address the whole person, including diet, exercise, relationships, co-occurring conditions, and much more. If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, there’s hope at The Raleigh House.

Fill out our form or contact us today to learn more.

Call Now: 720-891-4657

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