Whole Food for the Win: How Eating Healthfully Helps Recovery

Home / Recovery & Rehabilitation / Whole Food for the Win: How Eating Healthfully Helps Recovery


Whole Food for the Win: How Eating Healthfully Helps Recovery

eating breakfast healthy food fruit recovery two friendsWe already know that eating well is better for us. As we reach for a fifth slice of cheesy pepperoni pizza and slug back a sugary soda, many of us even plan to have a salad tomorrow to “make up for it,” only to fall back into old habits again. But what happens to our overall health—and the ability to stay focused in addiction recovery—if we consistently eat enriching whole foods?

Food or “Food”?

In his 2004 documentary Super Size Me, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock demonstrated the consequences of eating a mostly processed food diet and the similar addictive potential as alcohol and drugs. In his 2019 sequel, Super Size Me 2: Holy Chicken!, he delves more into the fast-food industry and goes so far as to open a restaurant of his own.

Spurlock, who went into rehab in 2019 for alcohol use disorder, said in his book, Don’t Eat This Book, that “the center [of the supermarket] is for boxed, frozen, processed, made-to-sit-on-your-shelf-for-months food. You have to ask yourself, ‘If this food is designed to sit in a box for months and months, what is it doing inside my body?’ Nothing good, that’s for sure.” And it can be the same during your recovery.

Numerous studies reveal this truth. Here’s a small sampling of the most recent:

In September 2022, researchers at Harvard University and Tufts University released findings that indicated “men who consumed high rates of ultra-processed foods were at 29 percent higher risk for developing colorectal cancer than men who consumed much smaller amounts. Colorectal cancer is the third most diagnosed cancer in the United States.” Products such as “processed meats like sausages, bacon, ham, and fish cakes” and “sugar-sweetened beverages like soda, fruit-based beverages, and sugary milk-based beverages” were among the processed foods and drinks examined.

The World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer Research also released data in 2022 from a study that highlighted the results of the Diabetes Prevention Outcome Study. Among the many recommendations included were to “limit consumption of fast foods and other processed foods high in fat, starches, or sugars; limit consumption of red and processed meats; limit consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs).”

In October 2021, researchers at the NYU School of Global Public Health reported findings that “the high and increasing consumption of ultra-processed foods in the 21st century may be a key driver of the obesity epidemic…ultra-processed foods are industrially manufactured, ready-to-eat or heat, include additives, and are largely devoid of whole foods.” Unfortunately, study authors also noted that Americans in the study increased their consumption of ultra-processed foods from 53 to 57 percent of calories during the study period, while their intake of whole foods declined nearly 10 percent. Keep reading to learn how this connects to your addiction recovery.

Why Processed Food Is a Problem If You’re in Recovery

Additional studies point to how a processed food diet increases symptoms of anxiety and depression and stimulates the brain’s reward center in the similar way to drugs and alcohol, amping up your cravings for more fat, salt, and sugar—which causes the cycle to start all over again.

As long as the brain continues to receive these signals, it makes it more challenging to curb compulsive behavior. By extension, repeatedly reaching for a hotdog, fries, and soda creates a dopamine spike that’s difficult to resist. So much so that some people actually experience withdrawal symptoms when they eliminate processed foods high in fat, salt, simple carbohydrates, and sugar.

Changing Your Diet for the Better

Many individuals who enter rehab are actually malnourished and learn to eat more nutritious meals while in a facility. Post-treatment, building an eating plan with more whole foods provides even greater success in recovery. Here are some tips that might help your recovery:

Don’t quit “cold turkey.” If you went through detoxification, you understand the importance of gradual withdrawal. Immediately cutting out all processed foods and other less-than-nutritious choices can cause many issues, including constipation, dehydration, headaches, insomnia, irritability, and mood swings. Instead, focus on one thing at a time, such as eliminating fast-food meals and cooking more healthfully at home.

Work with a nutritionist. Similar to the expert access you had during treatment, the guidance you receive from a professional helps you develop a new eating plan to fuel your body and mind. Yes, think of it as an eating plan rather than a diet, because similar to your sobriety, this is a change for life.

Eat a “green” meal once a day. What others might call “rabbit food” you know provides you with essential vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients to fuel your daily activities. Healthy vegetables paired with protein don’t have to be stodgy, either: WebMD provides a guide to tasty and nutritious salads.

Learn more about healthy swaps. As you continue to expand your nutrition knowledge, it becomes easier to make better ingredient choices and still enjoy delicious food. Review these sources for more options:

Finally, give yourself some grace with a revised eating plan, too. If you’re at a family reunion featuring tables overflowing with old favorites, enjoying a night out, or traveling on a sober vacation in an area with limited food options, simply choose carefully and mind your portions.

Seabrook: Addiction Treatment and Recovery for Life

Regaining sobriety and promoting healthy eating are some of the ways the board-certified staff at Seabrook helps you plan for a healthy life. Here are some additional holistic options you’ll find at our New Jersey addiction treatment locations.