Substance abuse can disrupt many areas of health, including nutrition. According to an article in Today’s Dietitian, the nutritional effects of substance abuse are often overlooked in the treatment of addiction. However, nutritional deficiencies can have a detrimental effect on some of the symptoms of withdrawal. Suboptimal eating habits and nutrition during treatment can result in lower levels of focus and information intake during treatment and therapy, which in turn can contribute to negative outcomes in the treatment process.
For these reasons, research-based rehab programs incorporate nutritional planning into the overall addiction treatment plan, helping to provide the support of balanced, scheduled, and satisfying meals that improve treatment outcomes for those in rehab. The process of incorporating this element of the program involves some simple steps.
Step 1: Meet with a supervising doctor to determine nutritional deficiencies.
During the intake process, a supervising physician reviews the individual’s overall health and wellness as well as the specific physical effects that the substance abuse has had. This includes observing the individual’s weight and discussing eating habits. This can determine nutritional issues like those described in the Today’s Dietitian article, such as:
- Weight gain from taking depressants or sedatives, such as opium, benzodiazepines, or alcohol
- Weight loss due to appetite suppression for those using stimulants
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies from poor eating habits or the body’s response to drug abuse
- Co-occurring eating disorders that accompany the substance abuse
As the doctor notes these issues, they are included in the overall analysis of the person’s individualized needs during treatment. This analysis can include treatment for co-occurring disorders that affect both eating habits and substance abuse, such as eating disorders, which need to be managed in concert with the nutritional plan and the therapies provided during addiction treatment. All of these elements are given to the nutritionist for consideration in developing the nutrition program for the individual.
Step 2: Work with a nutritionist to determine needs.
When the nutritionist receives the doctor’s notes, the information is analyzed to determine the specific nutritional needs for that individual. Potential areas of vitamin and mineral depletion are considered, as are the individual’s eating habits and other nutrient needs. For example, looking at an individual who has been abusing alcohol, the nutritionist can consider the nutritional elements that are normally affected by chronic alcohol intake, as described in information from the Boulder Medical Center.
If nothing else, the individual’s stress levels are taken into account. When the body goes through the extreme changes of transitioning from chronic drug abuse to abstinence and treatment, the body has to work hard to replenish neurotransmitters and heal the physical damage caused by the drugs. This can result in increased production of stress hormones like cortisol that deplete nutrients, including:
- Vitamins A, E, C, and the B family of vitamins
- Minerals such as zinc
- Electrolytes like potassium and sodium
- Essential fatty acids
At the very least, a nutrition plan will take this impact on the body’s nutritional health into account and provide meals that can replenish these nutrients, along with complex carbohydrates, protein, and fiber to normalize digestion, provide energy, and support healthy muscle.
Step 3: Develop a nutritional plan.
Upon determining the individual’s nutritional needs, a specific nutritional plan can be developed. This involves planning meals and making sure the individual has an eating schedule that conforms to the treatment plan.
For example, if the person is also struggling with binge eating or another type of eating disorder, meals will be provided on a schedule that complements the therapy plan for that co-occurring disorder. Sometimes, it may mean that eating is restricted to these times. For other individuals, the plan may allow for scheduled snack times. This schedule is based on the person’s need to boost nutrition or learn the structure of a healthy eating plan.
An article from Nutrition in Recovery emphasizes the need for the food provided through the meal plan to reinforce healthy eating models. Sometimes, meal plans are designed to please the person who is eating the food; however, this can create a response in the brain that is similar to the response from substance use, affecting the pleasure centers. A main goal of a good nutrition program is to help the individual learn to eat for health rather than to fill emotional needs. Integrated with treatment, this can reinforce the ability to avoid responding to triggers and cravings.
Step 4: Incorporate the plan into the treatment program.
As described by Medline Plus, the kind of food provided is not the only aspect of the nutrition program. Meal planning is also provided to help the person manage eating habits, such as:
- Limiting eating to scheduled meals
- Eating low-fat foods or foods with healthy fat
- Choosing healthy carbohydrates and eating enough fiber
- Avoiding substances that can slow normalization of brain function, such as sugar and caffeine
- Taking vitamin and mineral supplements, if needed
When these elements of a nutrition program are integrated into the treatment plan, it can help reinforce some of the other ideas that are shared through therapy, including managing cravings, limiting exposure to triggers, and providing alternatives that support healthy, desirable behaviors.
The meal and nutrition plan is prepared and provided in concert with the overall treatment plan, keeping in mind that food can sometimes become an addiction as well. Teaching people who struggle with addiction how to eat healthy can support teaching them how to manage the symptoms of substance use disorders, as well as providing them with the nutrition needed to help the body overcome many of the negative effects of chronic substance use.
Through this planning and implementation process, a nutritional program becomes an integral part of addiction treatment and can provide the individual with a foundation of health through which to approach recovery. This in turn can improve the person’s ability to take in information, trust the body’s natural pleasure and reward systems without looking to substance use, and move forward with hope into a future in recovery and wellness.
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