The Treatment 20
If the body stores weight in new recovery, remember, this too shall pass. The most important thing for people in new recovery is to focus on their sobriety, not their weight.
When I left for college, people warned me about the freshman 15 — those 15 pounds many freshmen gain when they have access to all-you-can-eat cafeterias and make frequent late-night pizza runs. After working in treatment centers for more than 20 years, I have coined a new phrase: the Treatment 20.
Many newly recovering clients enter treatment very underweight and malnourished. Mood disorders and using drugs and alcohol can create nutritional havoc, ending for many with major weight fluctuations. The body’s response to most opiates and methamphetamines is to stop digesting food and turn off the hunger response. Then when clients enter treatment and the drugs are taken away, the hunger returns — with a vengeance.
Being ravenously hungry in new recovery is normal for a lot of people. The body is craving nutrients that it has not had in a long time; however, the digestive system is not quite functional yet. The metabolism is slow to recover, and the bowel is usually damaged or sluggish. In response to this sharp increase in food intake and no way to process it, the body has no other choice but to store that food as added weight. Add to that sugar cravings due to sugar imbalances, and you get the 20 or so pounds people can gain in treatment.
One of the other reasons that some people gain weight in new recovery is because of the medications they may begin to take. Some of these cause weight gain, and others cause a lot of cravings, usually late at night.
Lastly, people in new recovery may not know what to do with idle time or the feelings that are coming up might be hard to tolerate, so they turn to food to distract, numb and comfort.
When people gain this weight, it can be very triggering and challenging. Some return to drugs to lose the weight, and the cycle starts again. Others go on crash diets, which can be chaotic to the mood and the digestive system. Old eating-disorder behaviors can arise and can be very serious.
Relapse due to this digestive change is another reason why our food choices in new recovery are so important. Although it may feel like two hamburgers, fries, a shake and a bag of chips is what you “need,” it is just another craving — similar to cravings for drugs and alcohol. It doesn’t work. Although it may taste good, the benefit is short-lived. The consequences to the body and mind are not worth it.
If the body stores weight in new recovery, remember, this too shall pass. Perhaps some of the weight is actually very necessary for the body to get strong again. The extra weight can be managed later if need be. The most important thing for people in new recovery is to focus on their sobriety, not their weight.
Whether intense hunger or cravings are present in treatment or in new recovery, healthy nutritious food is essential for healing and restarting the metabolism. Instead of two hamburgers, have one with avocado and a whole grain bun. Have a big salad on the side with your favorite dressing. Make some homemade “soda” with mineral water and some peach juice. Freeze a container of Greek yogurt, and enjoy that instead of ice cream. Go for a walk after dinner, and avoid the cookies at the next meeting. When cravings for soda and sugar arise, talk to someone about it. Giving in to cravings for things that are dangerous is a slippery slope. You deserve to have a healthy body — and a strong recovery.
Victoria Abel is the founder of the Center for Addiction Nutrition. She has been in the field of addiction and recovery since 1992. After her daughter’s critical illness was healed through a change in diet, her interest in food escalated.
After completing a nutrition degree, she combined her years as an addiction therapist and her passion for nutrition and creativity. She now consults at many treatment centers as well as offers one-on-one nutrition therapy with clients. She lives in the mountains of Arizona with her now very healthy daughter.