Proper nutrition is not a priority among people suffering from substance use disorder (SUD). They care about how and when they will get their next fix. Drug and alcohol abuse causes unhealthy eating habits and affects metabolism, culminating in malnutrition. Poor nutritional status has been found to increase drug-seeking behavior, severely impeding recovery from addiction (1).
Similarly, eating a healthy, well-balanced diet is rarely mentioned by people who are in treatment for addiction. They think about withdrawal, addiction group therapy, and getting back on track with their relationships, careers, and goals.
This post is about the impact of substance use and addiction on nutrition. We’ll also talk about how proper nutrition can help with addiction recovery.
How Drug Abuse Affects Nutrition
Substance abuse and malnutrition often go hand in hand. A study on the nutritional status of drug addicts undergoing detoxification found that 74% of the 253 male adults in the program suffered from malnutrition (2).
Drug use and addiction negatively impact an individual’s nutritional status by suppressing appetite, decreasing nutrient absorption, and interfering with hormones that regulate senses of hunger and satiety.
Going too long without proper nutrients can cause:
- Impaired immune responses
- A low BMI
- Unintended weight loss
- Muscle loss and fatigue
- Poor libido
- Impaired thermoregulation
Effects of Alcohol on Nutrition
Heavy drinking causes nutrient deficiencies by replacing healthy calories with empty calories. Alcohol calories have little to no nutritional value because they don’t contain proteins, essential vitamins, or minerals. Alcohol misuse also inhibits the absorption of vital nutrients like vitamins B, D, E, B12, zinc, and magnesium (3).
Effects of Heroin on Nutrition
An interview involving 40 current and ex-heroin users demonstrated that people addicted to this drug often prefer quick, convenient, and cheap sweet foods (4). From the interview, it’s also safe to conclude that heroin users don’t take pleasure in preparing and eating food. Beyond promoting healthy eating, cooking at home has also been linked to increased confidence, greater self-esteem, and improved mental health (5).
Effects of Cocaine on Nutrition
Cocaine is also known as the “skinny drug” because of its unwanted weight loss effects. For a long time, rapid weight loss among cocaine users has been linked to suppressed appetite. However, research by the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge suggests that cocaine weight loss is due to direct alterations of the metabolic processes (6). The researchers learned that cocaine addicts have uncontrolled eating patterns and often prefer carbohydrates and fatty foods.
The Relationship Between Addiction and Eating Disorders
Substance use disorder (SUD) and eating disorders often appear together. And it’s a dangerous combination, to say the least.
A person with an eating disorder has abnormal eating behaviors that severely impact their physical or mental health. Eating disorders are characterized by limited food intake, avoiding entire food groups, obsession with weight management, and strict rules on what and where to eat.
Substance addiction can lead to eating disorders. But it can also happen in reverse. Fifty percent of the people with an eating disorder also tend to struggle with alcohol and drug abuse compared to 9% of the general population with SUD. Likewise, 35% of SUD sufferers report problems with eating disorders compared to 1-3% of those struggling with eating disorders (7).
From a clinical perspective, substance use disorder (SUD) and eating disorders follow common brain pathways. For that reason, one can be used to help cope with the absence of the other (8). This partly explains the strong link between addiction and eating disorders.
Importance of Nutrition Therapy in Addiction Recovery
Medical nutrition therapy is a treatment based on individualized nutrition. It’s usually part of eating disorder treatment and involves the use of a regular diet tweaked to help an individual achieve a particular health goal.
Nutritional therapy is commonly recommended when managing chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and digestive problems. Mounting evidence also suggests that nutritional therapy can significantly help the addiction recovery journey.
How Nutritional Therapy Aids Addiction Recovery
Drug and substance abuse leads to poor nutrition, which can affect an individuals health and well-being. Similarly, a healthy body is crucial if an individual is to overcome an addiction. This makes proper nutrition a critical tool for the substance abuse recovery journey.
Medical nutrition therapy (9) involves four distinct but interrelated steps:
- Step 1: Nutrition assessment- the healthcare provider collects and interprets information to determine your nutritional status (the level of essential nutrients in your body and their ability to maintain healthy metabolism).
- Step 2: Nutrition diagnosis- the expert uses the results from the assessment stage to identify the nutrition problem that needs to be resolved.
- Step 3: Nutrition intervention- this is the planning and implementation phase. An interventionist designs a plan to fix the diagnosis, depending on the patient’s needs.
- Step 4: Nutrition Monitoring and Evaluation- the final step involves monitoring the progress the recovering drug or substance abuser has made nutrition-wise. The frequency of monitoring varies, depending on the degree of nutritional risk. More frequent monitoring may be recommended in case of adverse changes like unplanned weight changes and decreased meal intakes.
Nutritional therapy is akin to a recovering addict’s dietary blueprint that helps restore optimal body functioning. Besides developing an individualized meal plan, nutritional therapy in addiction recovery may include detoxification. Detoxification is essential in recovery as it helps an individual manage withdrawal symptoms.
The nutritional therapist may also help the recovering addict set simple and realistic goals that propel them towards long-term sobriety.
- 1. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0376871617303915
- 2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12425731/
- 3. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/aa22.htm
- 5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5862744/
- 6. https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/the-skinny-on-cocaine
- 7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2807480/
- 8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4689437/
- 9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21553460/