Nutrition and Sobriety: Why It Matters
First, let me start by saying that I am in no way a perfect example of what I’m about to preach to you all today, but I am trying! And that’s all I want you to do for now. Start trying to make good nutrition a priority in your sobriety.
For most people, heavy drinking really packs on the pounds. That extra jiggle around your waist and fullness in your face? It’s got to go!
I looked in the mirror in 2015 and realized I barely recognized who stared back at me. I’d gone up four sizes, gained 12 kg, nothing fit, and I felt horrible 90% of my day.
How did I let it get this bad?
If you find yourself asking similar questions, you’re obviously not alone. So let’s examine how we got here.
Alcohol and Weight Gain
Aside from the obvious impact of downing 1,000 additional calories from those five pints of cider you drank, there’s also the “after booze food binge” and “hangover binge” adding to your waistline woes. If you order a regular Big Mac meal at McDonald’s (not Super Sizing) after your five pints at the pub, you’ve just consumed approximately 2100 calories. Add that to whatever else you had earlier in the day, and… well… you see where I’m going with this.
Oh, and if you’re wondering. I am NOT exaggerating the caloric intake of drinking.
Want to blow your mind a little? Check out Drinkaware’s unit and calorie counter to see just how much damage you were doing in your heavy drinking days.
It’s really no wonder my metabolism threw me the deuce.
As I mentioned above, a year and a half after moving to the land of Ladies Drink Free and boozy expat brunches, I packed on at least twenty pounds and went from a US 2 to a US 10. I was overweight, ugly, and miserable.
(I’m still overweight, but I think I’ve chosen a very suitable haircut, my skin has improved tremendously, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life.)
How Alcohol Damages Your Body & Robs It Of Nutrients
I’ve talked about some of the damage alcohol has on your brain in the past, but there’s a lot going on in the rest of your body as well.
According to Addiction Campuses, alcohol “severely disrupts the body’s ability to break down and absorb nutrients from food due to damage of the stomach lining and a digestive enzyme deficiency.”
I’m two years sober and STILL trying to get my gut health sorted.
Heavy alcohol consumption can also damage your pancreas which is responsible for balancing your blood sugar levels. If you don’t correct your diet and continue your boozy ways, you’re at risk for an irreversible condition called alcohol-induced pancreatitis.
There are also new studies that suggest alcohol impairs your body’s ability to burn fat that’s already in your system. According to an article in Elle, alcohol gets “broken down into acetate (basically vinegar), which the body will burn before any other calorie you’ve consumed or stored, including fat or even sugar.”
If your body is getting all its energy from metabolizing the alcohol in your body, those nachos you had at happy hour are going to be converted to fat that stays right in your midsection (or wherever you carry your extra pounds).
Dealing With Nutrient Deficiency & Alcohol
Excessive alcohol consumption is doing a number on your body’s ability to get the nutrients it needs to run efficiently.
As a friendly reminder, heavy drinking is classified as 4 drinks in one session for women and 5 drinks in one session for men. “Drinks” is defined as a single unit of alcohol, so if you mix your gin and tonics with mostly gin and a splash of tonic, that’s likely two drinks in one.
Here are a few highlights of alcohol’s impact on your body from Alcoholics Victorious. You can read the full list here.
- Depletes your body of nutrients needed for healthy skin and hair (which is why you look like you aged 10 years after a particularly boozy weekend).
- Disrupts your kidneys’ ability to function properly, causing increased water output which means those much-needed nutrients are exiting your body before it can use them.
- Messes with your intestines which can lead to poor absorption of vital nutrients.
In addition to the aforementioned side effects, alcohol impedes your body’s ability to properly process two important amino acids: tyrosine and tryptophan. Why do these matter?
According to Alcoholics Victorious, “They are responsible for the production of norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin. These compounds are neurotransmitters that are essential for emotional stability, mental clarity, and a general state of well-being.”
Heavy alcohol consumers also often have deficiencies in folic acid and B-complex vitamins which further impact your mood.
The bottom line – you’re nutrient deficient and the only way to fix this is by eating healthfully.
Okay, but right now I just want to eat all the sugar and carbs!
Totally normal! Your body is craving sugar because it’s trying to get the dopamine “fix” it’s missing now that you stopped drinking. The reward centers in your brain need a new fix and sugar is a readily available replacement.
If you are not careful, you will end up replacing your alcohol addiction with a sugar addition. I speak from personal experience here as someone who woke up one day and realized, “Oh shit! I’m drinking 4-5 Diet Pepsi’s per day and devouring carbs on the regular.”
Avoiding Excessive Sugar In Sobriety
In addition to avoiding another addiction cycle, consuming too much sugar is going to continue the terrible cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes you engaged in when you drank alcohol.
This is where I found myself, which is why you have to make good nutrition a priority in sobriety from the beginning.
Especially after I had my daughter and was getting on average 3-4 hours of sleep, I used Diet Pepsi to function (not a coffee drinker). By the time she was sleeping like a normal human being, I was hooked. I needed Diet Pepsi to get my energy up and feel good (it worked), and then soon thereafter I would crash and the cycle would repeat.
A caveat – if you are hanging by a thread and eating a Snickers bar on Friday’s at 5 PM is helping you stay away from happy hour, then do it. I am NOT suggesting you try to eliminate sugar from your diet. In fact, please don’t. It’s too much at once.
I am giving a gentle warning to not let it get too out of control or you will find yourself right back where you started, trying to deal with another addiction.
What should you eat now that you’ve stopped drinking?
Due to the type of nutrient deficiencies that many heavy drinkers face, it’s particularly important to get high-quality protein into your diet. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, that means upping your tofu and legumes intake in addition to taking a B-complex supplement.
Beyond that, it is fairly basic. You don’t need to go on any special diet per se. You DO want to make sure you’re consuming the following:
- Healthy fats (avocado, nuts, seeds)
- Lean meats, poultry, or tofu (remember you really need that protein)
- Whole grains (but don’t go too overboard as carbs = sugar)
- Veggies, especially the green kind (I know, I know…)
- Fresh fruits in small quantities (to avoid blood sugar spikes)
Good nutrition is the key to giving your body the energy it needs, repairs the tissue and organ damage drinking has done, and strengthen your immune system.
People who consumed a healthy diet after quitting alcohol were less likely to relapse than those who did not. It is an incredibly important component of your recovery.
You’re using food to help repair the internal damage your drinking has done and to bring your body back into balance.
Which foods should you avoid?
The dreaded “Avoid List” or as I like to call it, the “Do As I Say Not As I Do” section. Full disclosure: I am working on this right with you. BUT, this is the level of nutrition in sobriety we all need to get to eventually.
For the sake of your health and recovery, you should avoid:
- caffeine (YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS LKJLKSDJFLKSJ)
- difficult to digest protein like red meat
- overly acidic foods (check your fruits)
- fried foods
- processed foods
- artificial sweeteners (cries real tears at this one)
- spicy foods (at least until your gut health gets back in balance)
- fatty foods (the bad kind, not healthy fats)
It may also be beneficial to cook your veggies at first while your digestive system is still healing. Raw vegetables can be harder to digest, specifically for sensitive tummies such as ours.
Oh, and also I know that reading that list is probably stress-inducing.
It is ASPIRATIONAL. You cannot nor should you try to eliminate all these things at one time while also trying to avoid booze. It will be too much.
Take one thing at a time and slowly build up to a healthier, more gut-friendly diet.
Even if you just start by eliminating takeout food and forcing yourself to cook at home, you’re likely to vastly improve the quality of foods you’re eating. Homemade stir fry and takeout stir fry are not one in the same, my friend.
A Word of Caution on Artificial Sweeteners
If you are slamming a lot of diet soda, monitor yourself closely. As I mentioned earlier, I got hooked on Diet Pepsi early in my sobriety and carried that bad habit with me for almost two years.
Over time, I developed some sensitivities to it (probably the aspartame). I got these horrible bloodsugar spikes and crashes, my digestion was screwed up, and towards the end, I was suffering dizzy spells and began having trouble with inflammation in my eye which was causing me blurred vision.
The dizzy spells stopped almost immediately after I quit drinking any diet soda and I’m now working through the caffeine withdrawals and getting the inflammation in my body under control.
Do I think diet soda does this to everyone who drinks it? No. I’m sure it doesn’t. BUT if you’re experiencing any weird symptoms like I mentioned above, try eliminating it to see if you improve and then visit your doctor.
The Importance of Mindset When Focusing On Nutrition
If you approach nutrition in sobriety from a point of deprivation, you are going to fail.
What goes on in your head when you read an article like this? Are you motivated or do you think that you’re being asked to give up everything that could possibly bring you joy?
You have to change the narrative in your head around joy and what it means to live well.
Healthy food can be exciting and fun. You get to try new dishes and explore what you like or don’t like. And please note that you do NOT have to force feed yourself to eat anything you don’t like.
I hate 87% of all salads, so I do not force myself to eat them. Instead, I think of tastier ways to get my greens (usually by hiding spinach in soup or a casserole) and keep it moving.
This should not feel like teeth pulling.
If giving up KFC is making you have anxiety, I know it’s DEFINITELY not because that fried chicken is so delicious. What’s really going on there? What is eating that food doing (or covering up) for you?
You DO want to avoid overwhelm, so I suggest taking it slow. Start with breakfast (yes you need to eat breakfast). Pinterest is a gold mine for all things delicious make-ahead breakfasts. Pick something that looks yummy and make it.
In a few weeks, you can focus on your lunches, and so on.
Chances are your nutrition has not been up to snub, so this is a whole new world for you. Instead of facing it with trepidation, keep an open mind. Pick a weird looking vegetable or fruit at the market and give it a try. Get excited about trying new recipes.
Live your best Food Network inspired life!
Hey, I’m really proud of you.
Seriously, I am. You are doing incredible things! Every day, I pile on a little something else to add to the weight you’re carrying and you take it all in stride.
I’m so in awe of you, and I hope you’re in awe of yourself, too. There’s no quick fix to any of this. It’s a daily, slow chipping away at a life that no longer serves us in pursuit of a healthier, happier way of being.
And YOU’RE DOING IT.
Even if you mess up, you keep trying, and that’s the best thing about you right now. So thank you for that.
Journal Activity To Go With This Article
Today, I want you to think about your diet and its impact on your overall well being.
- What was your diet like when you were drinking? Has it changed much? Write about it.
- Do you find yourself craving sugar? What’s that been like for you?
- What eating habits would you like to start changing?
- Which foods do you most want to start eliminating from your diet?
- How is your digestive health? Do you have any issues with bloating, discomfort, constipation, or diarrhea?
- Which foods do you want to start eating more of?
- Do you cook? What’s your game plan for improving your nutrition?