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diet and substance abuse recovery

Alternative Names
chemical dependency recovery, drug recovery

Substance abuse can be short-term or long-lasting. A person may abuse alcohol, drugs sold by prescription or over the counter, or illegal drugs. Good nutrition and a healthy diet play an important role in recovery from substance abuse.

What is the information for this topic?
Substance abuse is a major cause of malnutrition in otherwise healthy people. Nutritional care should be paired with other therapies used in recovery. Good nutrition may help decrease cravings for drugs and alcohol. It can help prevent a relapse, too. The goal of nutritional care is to:
  • prevent or correct nutrient deficiencies
  • solve eating problems
  • help a person make healthy food choices
  • help a person access food or agencies that provide food support
Alcohol abuse often reduces appetite. Alcohol provides no nutrients and, in fact, requires nutrients to help it detoxify in the liver. It replaces healthy foods that normally provide key nutrients and kilojoules. By irritating the intestinal tract, it interferes with the absorption of essential nutrients. Vomiting and diarrhoea may also contribute to poor use of any foods eaten. A person who abuses alcohol may suffer permanent damage to the liver and pancreas. This leads to problems regulating blood sugar levels.

Substance abuse can cause a person to lose appetite and eat less, too. It may change the metabolism and affects how well the body absorbs nutrients. It impairs major organs and body systems, including the:
  • heart
  • central nervous system
  • stomach and intestines
  • liver
  • endocrine system, which produces and regulates the body's hormones
  • bones
  • muscles
This leads to many vitamin and mineral deficiencies. Because of the harm substance abuse does to the body, a person needs more nutrients to repair the damage. Substance abuse can lead to serious weight loss, which can in turn cause loss of lean muscle. All of this results in malnutrition.

Certain nutrients are of great concern with substance abuse. These include: Because of the way drugs and alcohol affect the intestines, vitamin K is decreased. Lactose intolerance can also occur. The amino acids tryptophan and tyrosine, which are building blocks for protein, are also depleted. These need to be supplied during recovery.

Nutritional care for substance abuse begins with an evaluation of nutritional status. Blood tests may be done and health and diet histories may be taken. Initial goals are to supply enough protein and kilojoules to stabilise the person's weight and prevent low blood sugar, or hypoglycaemia. If necessary, fats are added to the diet, too. Foods high in fibre are encouraged to correct or prevent constipation that is common during recovery.

Too many sweets and too much caffeine are discouraged. Often, these become substitutes for the drugs or alcohol that were being abused.

Usually smaller, more frequent meals are better tolerated. A food plan with 6 small meals a day helps lessen such problems as cravings and binge eating.

The best treatment for malnutrition due to substance abuse is a healthy, diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibre. Following the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating ensures that all food groups are represented. Vitamin and mineral supplements are helpful, too. A person may benefit from one to three times the recommended daily intake (RDI) for water-soluble vitamins, such as vitamin C. Supplements cannot protect the body from the damage alcohol and drugs do. However, they may help minimise long-term nutritional consequences.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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