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Why Good Nutrition Matters In Sobriety

In sobriety, we often focus on the emotional and psychological aspects of recovery. But our physical health plays just as important a role.

It is well-documented how alcohol in any amount, but especially in large quantities, seriously damages our digestive system. This has a sweeping effect, not only on how we feel but on our mood and ability to tolerate stress well.

The inflammatory effects of alcohol make us physically sick and exacerbate mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.

All of these conditions make quitting really hard.

We don’t feel good, we might not look very good, and our brains feel completely hijacked by the desire to drink.

Believe it or not, one of the most important things we can do in sobriety is to focus on good nutrition habits.

Most of us ate terribly during our heavy drinking days. As a result, many of us gain weight, have a bloated, aged appearance, experience vitamin deficiencies, and develop ongoing digestive problems.

Fortunately, we can repair these things through good, sober nutrition.

Alcohol and Weight Gain

Alcohol leads to weight gain in direct and indirect ways.

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 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 did in your binge drinking days.

It’s no wonder my metabolism threw me the deuce.

In the last year of my drinking life, I moved to the UAE, 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, swollen, red-faced, and miserable.

A happy woman pumps her fist in the air. Behind her is a bowl of food and a no alcohol sign. The title reads How Diet Can Support Your Sobriety
The importance of nutrition in sobriety and recovery

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 a lot is 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.”

This leads to what is colloquially known as “leaky gut.”

Heavy alcohol consumption can also damage your pancreas, which balances 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.

That’s because alcohol is a toxin. Your body prioritizes its metabolism above all else, including fat and 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).

Alcohol also robs your body of thiamine, or vitamin B12 as it’s commonly known. It does through a combination of factors such as poor diet, malabsorption and damage to the intestinal lining, and by blocking thiamine-metabolizing enzymes in the brain.

It’s why, unsurprisingly, nearly 80% of people who abuse alcohol chronically develop thiamine deficiency.

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 four drinks in one session for women and five drinks in one 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.

  1. Depletes your body of nutrients needed for healthy skin and hair (which is why you look ten years older after a boozy weekend).
  2. 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.
  3. Damages your intestinal lining, leading to poor absorption of vital nutrients.

Additionally, alcohol impedes your body’s ability to properly process two essential amino acids: tyrosine and tryptophan. Why do these matter?

According to Alcoholics Victorious, “They are responsible for the production of norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These compounds are neurotransmitters 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 (mentioned above), which further impact their mood.

The only way to health these effects is to quit drinking and prioritize good sober nutrition.

More>> What Happens To Your Body After You Quit Drinking Alcohol

Okay, I Quit Drinking, But I Only Want 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 replace your alcohol addiction with a sugar addiction. I speak from personal experience here as someone who woke up one day and realized, “Oh snap! I quit alcohol and can’t stop drinking Diet Pepsi and ingesting carbs!”

Avoiding Excessive Sugar In Sobriety

Consuming too much sugar will create a terrible cycle of blood sugar spikes and crashes, which impact your mood and your energy levels. When you do not feel good physically and emotionally, you are more likely to relapse.

This is another reason why you must 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 Fridays 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.

Access should not be a barrier to help.

Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp. If you have tried (and failed) to find a therapist with the knowledge and background to help you navigate your specific issues, try BetterHelp. Learn more about my counseling journey with BetterHelp or visit their website below.

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 legume intake and taking a B-complex supplement.

So let’s start there!

The Importance of Protein in Recovery:

Eating a diet rich in healthy protein has so many benefits that are particularly important for people recovering from chronic alcohol consumption and abuse.

These include:

  • Improved function of neurotransmitters. The amino acids in proteins are important for the production of neurotransmitters, the chemicals in our brain which allows cells to communicate with each other. These are important in the production of dopamine and serotonin, for example. The result is improved mood and lowered desire to drink.
  • Reduced sugar cravings. Protein-rich diets can help stabilize blood sugar and reduce sugar consumption which has been linked to depression and memory problems. Because depression in early sobriety is common, it’s important to support your mental health via good nutrition and exercise.

Healthy protein sources include lean meats, poultry, tofu, nuts, and legumes.

Increase Fiber Intake

One way to repair your gut health in sobriety is to increase your fiber intake. Studies have shown that just two weeks of increased fiber intake is enough to significantly alter your gut microbiome, something alcohol wreaks havoc on.

A healthy, diverse human gut microbiota leads to reduced inflammation, improved immune function, and improved mood and cognitive function. All of these things are negatively impacted by alcohol.

In sobriety, you can increase your fiber intake to repair that damage and build a strong foundation for your healthy, alcohol-free future.

Good sources of fiber include a diverse array of fruits and vegetables (eat the rainbow), beans, berries, and avocados.

Eat Fermented Foods

Naturally-occurring probiotics are another excellent line of defense against poor gut health caused by drinking and eating horribly.

Alcohol kills off good gut bacteria and creates an overgrowth of bad gut bacteria in our microbiome, which leads to all sorts of problems like depression, anxiety, constipation, diarrhea, and alcohol cravings.

By quitting alcohol and consuming fermented foods that contain live probiotics, we can repair that damage and boost good gut bacteria levels.

Probiotics can be found in fermented food like tempeh, kimchi, miso, kefir, and plain greek yogurt.

Focus on Complex Carbohydrates

Despite what Keto proponents will tell you, we need carbohydrates for energy. They are part of a well-rounded, healthy diet.

The key is to focus on complex carbohydrates.

Complex carbs take longer to digest and are a more stable energy source than simple carbs that spike your blood sugar and send you crashing soon after that.

Examples of complex carbohydrates include whole grains like brown rice, barley, oats, wild rice, spelt, and bulgur wheat.

Sober Nutrition, Mood, and Health

Good nutrition is the key to giving your body the energy it needs, repairing the tissue and organ damage drinking has caused and strengthening your immune system.

Studies have shown that 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.

But it is just one piece of a larger puzzle. You also need to build a strong sobriety network, maintain good physical health through exercise, and prioritize your mental health by attending counseling or group sessions.

But it 100% can be done and I’m rooting for you to succeed.

If you’re interested in learning more about the connection between good gut health and emotional well-being, check out this video below:

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?

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4 Comments

  1. I quit sugar before I quit drinking, in preparation to stop, and it seems to have lessened my alcohol cravings this time. I love to cook but it’s a bit of a trigger for me as I used it as an excuse to start drinking too. So now I pour a cold soda water instead, and get choppin’. Focused on Mediterranean diet, whole foods.

  2. A timely post. Very helpful to me just now.
    Made toasted muesli at the weekend for my healthy new breakfast food. Will take it slow introducing new whole foods into my new diet.
    Saw “Diet Fiction” documentary, very helpful for the new sober me.
    What you said about binge eating after and during binge drinking. Yes. I knew that very well.
    And trying not to substitute sweet for alcohol is a challenge. Don’t need to get addicted to that too. But I am already there. Sweet tooth.?
    Off caffeine while I try to sort out my sleep patterns.
    Getting there.i

    1. I can relate to ALL of this. I never had a sweet tooth before I quit drinking and now I find myself passing donut shops and thinking, ohhh let me get one. I’m working on it though by gradually scaling back. Congrats on staying away from the caffeine. That’s a big one! When my daughter was born, she had a lot of digestive issues that meant she rarely slept and was screaming most of her waking hours so Diet Pepsi helped me survive. It became a problem though, for sure. I’ve not heard of the documentary you mentioned but will see if I have access!

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