Every addict is in danger of picking up one or more “cross addictions,” meaning they will substitute one addiction for another. Because of its accessibility and dopamine-spiking nature, food is one of the most likely cross addictions — especially the trifecta of sugary/fatty/salty food combinations often called “hyperpalatables.” These are specifically engineered by food manufacturers to drive that all-too-familiar “I can’t eat just one” binge.
These same products are often used to ease the transition from detox to recovery for those with a substance use disorder. But more often than not, the food becomes yet another addiction. Managing food and addiction can be tricky and challenging. With cocaine addiction, you’re either “on the bus” (clean) or “off the bus” (using). But what about Twizzlers and sugary soda six-packs? After all, everyone in recovery needs to eat to live. The question is, what to eat to avoid a food addiction? Refined, processed and manufactured hyperpalatables (think Oreos, Mint Milanos, Doritos, Red Bull and coffee doused with five tablespoons of table sugar) continually ignite the brain’s reward center, interfering with the achievement of a healthy and lasting recovery. Alternatively, choosing delicious, rewarding and satisfying whole foods is a vital part of the arsenal for achieving a healthy, addiction-free life.
For years, the main focus for drug and alcohol rehab was to get clean and stay that way. Little if any attention was ever paid to the role of nutrition and lifestyle. The old adage was something along the lines of, “who cares what you eat so long as you aren’t robbing a bank or stealing from your mother?” These dark ages continued until groundbreaking new research forced a collective awakening for addiction professionals and addicts alike.
The truth is this: What you eat significantly impacts on your recovery success. More than 92 percent of drug addicts enter recovery undernourished. While in the state of being high, it’s no surprise that addicts generally aren’t usually found perusing the produce section of farmer’s markets, nor are they taking the time to cook from scratch. Instead, the standard nutritional modus operandi often tends to be throwing something in the microwave, grabbing whatever’s around and running off or driving while dining on junk food. Indeed, many people survive the active phase of their addictions on hyperpalatable foods that are devoid of nutrition but that are cheap and easy to get. Even food addicts are typically under-nourished, hooked as they are on sugary sweets, not tuna on a bed of greens.
The “New Normal for Recovery,” then, must include the incorporation of a healthy lifestyle blueprint, and nutrition is a critical, life-saving component of this rehab game plan. Researchers have made it clear that detoxing from an addiction, preventing relapse and achieving long-term recovery will only happen when the recovery process includes the repair of both a sorely neglected mind and body and a hijacked reward system in the brain. A food plan for recovery needs to be chockfull of Nature’s own “chemicals” for keeping dopamine levels elevated with amino acids like tyrosine and phenylalanine and vitamins and minerals like B-6 and zinc that help the body absorb and effectively use those nutrients. (In future blogs I’ll be exploring the edible world of all those multi-syllabics. But for now, pitch the Pop Tarts and reach for that grilled chicken with a side of veggies.)
Let me be clear: The plan is not to take you from a daily triple-cheese pepperoni pizza washed down with a double-size Big Gulp to a mound of arugula. “Recovery Food” must please your palate as well as your brain’s reward center. Eating food is a primal pleasure; food must not be about deprivation, which leads to stress. Our brains are geared for the tasty rewards of natural foods; refined and processed foods, on the other hand, create an unnatural, over-the-top sensation that damages and impairs key brain centers, facilitating the cycle of addiction. They provide a short-term fix, quickly resulting in a desire for more and more. I call these hyperpalatable bingeables that lead to addictive eating behavior “False Fixes.” If you want to know which foods are your False Fixes, try this simple exercise: Before you eat any food or drink a beverage, ask yourself these two questions:
- After consuming this food/drink, will I feel a loss of control?
- After consuming this food/drink, will I feel shame, blame and guilt?
If the answer to either or both is “yes,” whatever is sitting in front of you is not working for you or your recovery. Take that False Fix and place it on a virtual shelf for the time being. In upcoming blogs, you’ll be learning how to gradually switch out False Fixes for Healthy Fixes to support your end goal: joyful, rewarding and sustainable recovery.