Rehab 4 Addiction

We all need to eat healthy food. Eating good food is key to good physical and mental health, and when we fail to do so we get sick.

Those in recovery need to eat healthy food the most. Abusing substances causes a range of deficiencies. Many of those with substance abuse problems become malnourished.

Unfortunately, eating healthy when you are in recovery is not as simple as just ‘eating more vegetables.’ You need to eat foods that are rich in certain vitamins and minerals in order to get back to full health. You also need to be careful not to eat too much: this can cause problems for your digestive system.

In this guide, we go through the effects of drug abuse on the body, from a nutritional point of view. We discuss the foods to eat (and the foods to avoid) during recovery. And we also look at the dangers of quitting substances without help.

How substance abuse affects diet and nutrition

We know all about the negative effects that substance abuse can have on the mind and body. But sometimes we ignore the effects it has on nutrition.

Each drug has different effects on nutrition. However, there are some nutritional problems which are common to most people with substance abuse problems.

Here are some of the main ones:

  • Lack of appetite: Abusing drugs tend to reduce appetite. The one exception is cannabis, which actually increases appetite. However, this can be just as dangerous, as we will discuss later in the article
  • Damage to major organs: Some drugs, like alcohol, can damage important organs in the body. As well as the liver and heart, alcohol damages the pancreas. The pancreas helps with digestion. When it is damaged, it produces fewer enzymes to digest things. This makes digestion slower and less efficient
  • Bad health caused by eating poorly: Those with substance abuse problems typically have a weak appetite. However, when they do eat, they are more likely to eat unhealthy food. This is because it takes time and effort to eat well. In order to eat healthily, you may have to go to the shops to buy vegetables, and then spend time cooking. Someone with substance abuse problems is unlikely to want to spend time preparing healthy food. They are much more likely to eat junk food – food that is high in sugar and salt, which takes very little time to prepare. Junk food also tends to have a low amount of vitamins and minerals. Eating a diet which is high in sugar and salt and low in vitamins and minerals can cause a range of health problems. For example, eating too much salt can lead to heart disease or high blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia): Not eating enough can lead to low blood sugar. This can cause various problems. It can lead to nervousness, sweating, confusion, a quick heartbeat and more
  • Gastrointestinal disorders: These can be caused by various drugs. The biggest culprits are alcohol and opioids. Both can cause constipation, which leads to a variety of problems
  • Nutrient loss: This is a very bad one because those with substance abuse problems don’t tend to get enough nutrients in their diet generally. When they lose nutrients through vomiting and diarrhoea, they end up with even fewer nutrients in their bodies. To top it all off, damage to the gut caused by substance abuse makes it less good at absorbing nutrients. The risk of nutrient deficiencies is very high. Nutrient deficiencies can lead to various problems, from digestive problems to skin complaints

These are just some of the main effects of drug abuse on diet and nutrition. In the following section, we go into more detail with each drug, looking at the effects of abusing this specific drug on the body.

Alcohol and nutrition

Those who suffer from an alcohol abuse problem do not typically eat healthy food.

A small amount of alcohol abuse often causes people to eat more food than normal, especially the day after a binge. However, this tends to be unhealthy food, which is high in sugar and salt.

A night of binge drinking causes blood sugar to spike. The next day, blood sugar falls quickly. This causes drinkers to want to eat and drink things that will replace this blood sugar.

A more serious alcohol abuse problem has very different effects. When someone abuses alcohol daily, they will find their appetite gets weaker.

Alcohol is very high in calories. Those who drink large amounts every day start to find that their body is getting most of its calories from alcohol. This ‘liquid diet’ is very bad for the body since it contains no vitamins, minerals, fibre, protein or indeed anything that the body needs to stay healthy.

The problem gets worse. Even when those who abuse alcohol do eat healthily, the alcohol they drink prevents the nutrients from being absorbed into their blood. This means that their risk of having a nutrient deficiency is very high.

Another problem is the effect of alcohol on the liver and pancreas. These organs are key to digestion. When they stop working, digestion happens much more slowly and is less efficient.

We mentioned the pancreas earlier, and how it produces enzymes that digest things. It also controls blood sugar. When it stops working, blood sugar levels can spike.

The liver breaks down toxins. Alcohol damages the liver. A diseased liver cannot break down toxins, which means that alcohol stays in the system for longer, causing further problems.

The main deficiencies caused by alcohol abuse are folic acid, thiamine and vitamin B6 deficiency. The worse of these is thiamine deficiency. It can lead to something called Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. This is a dangerous brain disorder.

Opioid/opiate abuse and nutrition

The main nutritional problem with opioid abuse is that it makes your appetite smaller. Those who abuse opioids will find that they can go for days without eating anything. On top of this, they may not want to eat anything so that their high lasts longer.

Not eating anything for long periods of time is bad for the body because it means that it is not getting enough nutrients.

Those who abuse opioids also do not eat enough fruit and veg. This can lead to severe constipation. If constipation goes untreated for a long time it can cause lasting problems.

Stimulants and nutrition

There are lots of nutritional problems which go hand-in-hand with stimulant abuse. Just as with opioids, using stimulants can lead to a smaller appetite.

This is because people who abuse stimulants tend to binge the drug. During a binge, the need for food is considerably smaller. Sweating a lot can also lead to electrolyte imbalances and dehydration.

Many of those who abuse stimulants become malnourished. This can cause several problems, such as changes in heart rate, muscle wastage, problems with the brain, and mental health issues.

Finally, there is a risk when those who abuse stimulants come off the drug that their appetite will suddenly get much larger. If they eat too much, too quickly, this can lead to massive weight loss or even overwhelm the digestive system. It is very important to manage nutrition carefully after quitting a stimulant habit.

Cannabis and nutrition

The nutritional problems associated with cannabis are slightly different. With most of the drugs that we’ve discussed so far, the problems come from not eating enough. However, with cannabis, they come from eating too much. Specifically, they come from eating too much food that is high in salt and sugar.

Cannabis causes an increase in appetite. It also makes certain foods, especially sweet and salty foods, taste better. Those who abuse cannabis therefore eat more of these unhealthy foods.

Too much salt and sugar in your diet can cause nutritional problems. For instance, eating too much sugar can cause type-2 diabetes.

What and how to eat during recovery?

When in recovery, there are many things to think about in terms of nutrition. Eating the right kinds of food and the right amount of food is very important. If you get this wrong, you can overwhelm your body and slow down your recovery.

The first thing to do is to get the right ratios of different foods in your diet.

People in recovery need to eat more complex carbohydrates. In fact, these should make up about 50% of your diet. They include things like legumes, pasta, bread and root vegetables.

Why do those in recovery need to eat more complex carbs?

The answer is to bring serotonin levels back under control. Those who abuse drugs and alcohol may find that their serotonin levels are much lower. Complex carbs are necessary for the production of serotonin, which is why those in recovery need to eat more of them.

Another important part of any recovery diet is dairy and protein.

Many people in recovery are very underweight. Dairy and protein can help to put on weight quickly. This is important for your health.

However, you have to be careful not to put on weight too quickly. During the first months of recovery, your body cannot process food as well as before. This can lead to dangerous weight gain. Start slow with food and build up to larger amounts.

Also, avoid sugary foodstuffs. Not only can they lead to uncontrolled weight gain, but they can also act as a replacement for drugs. The same is true of caffeine. Anything that gives you a ‘buzz’ can be dangerous for those in recovery.

Finally, you need good oils as part of your diets, such as olive oil, or oils found in fish. These help to build up fat stores in the body.

It is also important to get lots of minerals, vitamins and nutrients in your diet when you are in recovery. Many addictions rid the body of B-vitamins. Alcohol abuse, for example, lowers the levels of thiamine and folate in the body.

These need to be built back up, either through supplements or through foods that contain them. Nutrients are useful too since they help to get toxins out of the body.

Are there any specific foods you should eat during recovery?

Having talked in general terms about nutrition during recovery, we’re now going to look at some specific foods that are good for recovery.

  • Whole grains: Whole grains, found in brown rice and brown bread, are a form of complex carbohydrate. Complex carbs are useful for making serotonin. They are also good for the digestive system since they contain fibre. Alcohol abuse, opioid abuse and many other addictions harm the digestive system. Fibre can help to offset this.
  • For those who want to get protein, but need to avoid fat, or simply don’t want to eat meat, tofu is a great alternative. It is full of protein and contains next to no calories.
  • Bananas are good for those in recovery because they contain amino acids such as tryptophan, which helps you to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep is an essential part of good mental health and should be a priority for everyone, not just those in recovery.
  • Chicken and fish: Chicken and fish are full of an amino acid called tyrosine. This is really important to get in your diet since it helps to create dopamine. Abusing drugs stop the body from absorbing tyrosine, so it needs to be replenished in recovery.
  • It is often said that yoghurt is good for the digestive system: This is completely true! Eating more yoghurt will do your body a lot of good.

Final thoughts

In this informational page, we’ve looked at how drug abuse affects nutrition, including the effects of many of the most common drugs such as opioids and alcohol. We’ve also looked at how and what to eat in recovery, including specific foods that are good for those in recovery.

We hope that you’ve found inspiration, and can put some of these ideas into action in your own recovery or that of a loved one.

Nutrition should not be overlooked in recovery: what we put in our bodies matters a lot.


Boris is our editor-in-chief at Rehab 4 Addiction. Boris is an addiction expert with more than 20 years in the field.  His expertise covers a broad of topics relating to addiction, rehab and recovery. Boris is an addiction therapist and assists in the alcohol detox and rehab process. Boris has been featured on a variety of websites, including the BBC, Verywell Mind and Healthline.