The Connection Between Diet and Successful Addiction Recovery
Nutrition is a key component in helping the body return to a balanced state in recovery from addiction, especially in the early stages of detox and withdrawal.
Recovering addicts face a number of nutritional challenges. Using drugs or alcohol harms the body’s metabolism in important ways. Alcohol impedes the intake of nutrients and opiates can cause gastrointestinal issues. Withdrawal from opiates can cause severe vomiting and diarrhea. All of the above can lead to malnutrition.
Organizing your life around the acquisition of a drug of choice will typically result in poor eating habits. Buying healthy food can easily drop off the radar when the mind is focused on finding the next fix. Who needs a salad when drugs suppress your appetite or alcohol provides a large part of your caloric intake?
At Lakeview Health, eating healthy food and developing good dietary habits are part of the recovery program. Lakeview’s director of food services, Marco Grave de Peralta, is a recognized culinary expert and has worked to develop other recovery-focused menus for addiction treatment centers nationally. He graduated in the top ten from the Culinary Institute of America and has more than 20 years of experience in the culinary arts and dietary services. He has also worked with specialty groups, including adolescent diabetic campers in New Jersey and older adults at a retirement community in Virginia.
Chef Marco’s mission at Lakeview presents different challenges. Often, patients show up malnourished and many are not very flexible when it comes to food choices.
“Younger patients in particular are very much accustomed to a diet of french fries, chicken fingers, and pizza,” says Chef Marco. “We have people coming in who tell us they can only eat fast food. When we try to encourage them to eat salad, they say, ‘No way. I can’t eat that!’ That is our biggest problem; they want to eat the way they ate in high school.”
Lakeview recipes focus on the concept of scratch cooking. “We do not use a lot of frozen products here. Ninety-five percent of our meals are made from scratch, and the vegetables are always prepared fresh. We offer food choices that can be unfamiliar. Some of the patients have never even heard of arugula or quinoa,” explains Chef Marco, whose strategy involves exposing patients to a wide variety of healthy choices.
To achieve that, he works with carefully crafted menu choices on a four-week rotation. Every day for two weeks, patients get a different option for lunch and dinner. In week three, the meal choices are repeated, but now the lunch choice becomes dinner and vice versa. That way, patients can try everything at least twice before they are discharged. The nutritional detox is rounded out with a full salad bar, a full sandwich bar, and a soup of the day. In addition, Lakeview offers vegan and vegetarian choices and special meals for patients with food allergies or other medical dietary requirements.
Feedback is always welcome. “Here and there, we adjust the menu according to suggestions and popularity, but we like to keep it healthy,” says Chef Marco. “We give them the healthy and the not-quite-so-healthy option. If we bombard them with nothing but super healthy food, many will just say, ‘I’m not eating that stuff,’ and simply refuse to try it.”
At many other recovery centers, food is just an afterthought. At Lakeview, it is a central aspect of healing the body and mind. Healthy food gives the body energy, repair tissues, and strengthens the immune system. It can even improve the mood of patients, who are going through a challenging experience.
A pleasant environment will help with people’s moods as well. Lakeview patients can now enjoy their healthy food options in a new restaurant with big-screen TVs and attractive wood paneling. It was deliberately crafted to replicate the feel of a sports bar, so patients can get used to the idea that eating in a sports bar and watching a ball game does not require the consumption of alcohol.
Chef Marco also works closely with the wellness program. He communicates with exercise physiologist Lauren Stobbie on a regular basis to make sure that nutrition and fitness complement each other. “Sometimes, patients in the fitness program deliberately restrict their food intake because of body image issues,” says Stobbie. “Other patients are fitness fanatics who have been misusing steroids or engaging in an unhealthy intake of proteins.”
It’s very important to catch such behaviors early on and to educate patients about healthy diets and fitness routines. Chef Marco is keenly aware he not just serving supper. “These are patients recovering from a disease,” says Marco. “They are missing their families, and a great meal could be the highlight of their day.”
It can also be a learning experience, and hopefully patients will be inspired to continue a healthy diet to support their recovery after leaving Lakeview Health.