The primary health concern I hear from clients in early recovery is a rapid increase in weight, sometimes in excess of 50 pounds in a couple months. And, rightfully so! Large gains in weight can destroy self-esteem and inspire thoughts and actions that further separate us from that which we are striving to become – conscious, mindful, and true to our needs and the needs of others. Beyond the psychological and spiritual consequences that gaining large amounts of weight in recovery may have, the physical consequences are just as serious with lifestyle diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer becoming the new normal in our always-on-the-go society. Years of living and working in recovery have taught me that weight gained in early recovery can often be attributed to a few specific physiological and behavioral events within the body and mind.
First, years spent in addiction robs or deprives us of the life skills necessary to eat, live, and work in a manner conducive to physical and psychological health. When most of our energy is applied to the acquisition and consumption of drugs or alcohol, we often disregard the importance of learning how to plan and prepare healthy meals, exercise, and excel in a structured work environment in favor of the “easier and softer way” – fast food, video games, and working outside the law in order to make a quick buck. Concerning weight gain, this is fairly intuitive. Taking in a Big Mac, super-sized French fries and Coke while remaining sedentary and operating on little or no sleep instead of preparing a grilled chicken salad at home after a run and a good night’s sleep will contribute to weight gain and ill health, overeating, and impaired biological function. Fortunately, this is the easiest source of weight gain to remedy and the solution may have the most profound effect on the ability to live a healthy and productive life. If this is you, start by hanging out with those who exemplify a healthy diet and lifestyle and you will quickly learn what they do to stay healthy and fit.
If you want to be a little more proactive, there are many “how-to” cooking, exercising, time management, budgeting, etc. books, magazines, and websites out there that may help you along in your journey towards a normal weight and health. The first and often easiest way to develop the skills necessary to promote health and recovery is to practice planning, preparing, and eating at home. Start by spending 30 minutes on Saturday or Sunday planning a few simple meals that you will make at home the following week, building a grocery list, and going to the grocery store so that you are completely ready when the time comes to cook. With a plan and all the required inputs, you will have a hard time justifying inaction.
Another reason weight gain may occur in early sobriety is that the body is trying to heal from years of neglect by holding and storing everything that it’s given, healthy or otherwise. Regardless of how educated, experienced, and insightful we may be in the realms of food, fitness, and spiritual enlightenment, active addiction destroys vital organ function, contributes to nutrient deficiency, and numbs the body to external stimuli unlike any other disease known to man. When we enter sobriety the body will begin to repair itself, which may require an large amounts of certain nutrients such as healthy fats, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals that are usually absent in highly processed convenience foods. Compound this with the complex set of biochemical and physiological changes that occur within the body during times of deprivation, often referred to as the starvation response, that reduce metabolic function and increase nutrient storage to help the body survive another period of neglect should it occur. Together the two act synergistically to promote nutrient retention and weight gain.
The solution to this type of weight gain is the maintenance of a healthy diet, exercise and time. Working with an experienced nutritionist and lifestyle coach will greatly improve success and reduce the amount of time required to restore vital organ function and health, especially if there are preexisting condition such as diabetes, liver or kidney disease. I cannot stress this enough, there is no “one size fits all” diet or exercise plan and working with a qualified professional will help you build a regiment that best fits your health and nutrient needs.
Finally, weight gain in sobriety may be the result of the transference of addiction and self-medication. Food addiction is a very real thing and when we remove highly rewarding substances such as drugs or alcohol we may have a tendency to replace them foods that have a similar effect upon the brain and body. Foods that contain excessive amounts of fat, sugar, and salt can ignite the brain’s reward center and stimulate the release of “feel good” neurotransmitters such as dopamine in a manner similar to substances of abuse. Unfortunately, such as that which happens with drugs and alcohol, tolerance develops ant the ability of foods to produce feeling of comfort diminishes with continued consumption, which has the ability to motivate even greater consumption in order to receive the desired effect.
Greater consumption of sugar, salt, and fat-laden foods contributes to overeating and impaired biological function, both of which contribute to weight gain and ill health. Further, when we remove drugs and alcohol we may use food to minimize cravings and symptoms of withdrawal. Conquering food addiction and the tendency that addicts and alcoholics have to self-medicate may require intense work with a sponsor, counselor, psychologist or psychotherapist to properly identify detrimental behaviors and their source. Avoiding highly rewarding foods and eating to promote blood sugar stability are excellent adjunct therapies to aide in the treatment of food addiction and self-medication.
Although weight gain may happen in the early days of sobriety, recovering alcoholics and addicts are not doomed to a heavier existence and there are many ways in which food, fitness, and a spiritual program of action can promote total health and wellbeing. In order to find a normal weight and health we must first identify the source of our weight gain so that we can take the proper actions in overcoming detrimental eating behaviors.
Matthew Lovitt is a holistic nutritionist specializing in the treatment of drug and alcohol addiction with food and fitness. He is the staff nutritionist for an all men’s long-term treatment facility in Prescott, Arizona and maintains a private practice where he helps addicts, alcoholics, children, families, and those suffering from specific, often acute, conditions restore health and well being through dietary and lifestyle modification. Matthew is a recovery alcoholic and drug addict with over 6 years of sobriety. You can learn more about him and his diet and lifestyle philosophy at twelvewellness.com, on Facebook and Twitter.