Nutrition and Recovery: How To Move Past 4 Common Roadblocks

Jess Krefting MS, RD, LDN

During your substance use recovery journey, eating a healthy diet can be critical. It will provide your body with energy and help repair and strengthen your immune system. Nutrition has been shown to work on the same mood-affecting neurotransmitters that substances alter, like dopamine and serotonin, and can improve your overall mental and physical well-being.

The primary goal of nutrition during your journey will be to eat three well-balanced meals, plus with 1-3 healthy snacks per day. It may sound pretty simple, but life can often throw up roadblocks or detours. The four that follow are the most common. But rest assured, with a little planning and support from loved ones, you can maintain a balanced diet to support your recovery.

Road Block 1: Controlling food cravings

Research has shown that cutting back on added sugars can help prevent the risk of some heart and obesity-related diseases. Unfortunately, many people on the recovery journey crave sugar and other low-nutrient foods, thanks to sugar’s ability to mimic the positive feeling that certain substances of misuse also create. Controlling these cravings for sugar and stabilizing blood sugar levels can help improve mood and decrease risk for relapse. 

People in recovery may also find themselves craving caffeine. While a moderate amount of 1-2 servings per day is appropriate, more caffeine than that can increase anxiety, cause restlessness or insomnia, or decrease appetite.

You can control these cravings by establishing (and sticking to) a meal schedule, opting for protein-rich snacks that will make you feel full and reduce the risk of a binge later, and of course, avoiding foods with sky-high sugar and caffeine levels.

Road Block 2: Alcohol in the house

Have a family member or friend look through your kitchen for any products that contain alcohol. Be thorough, too: It’s possible for alcohol to be present in extracts (vanilla for example), marinades, drink enhancers, or condiments. Reading the ingredients will be key—it’s a myth that alcohol burns off in the cooking process.

Road Block 3: Withdrawal symptoms

Nutrition can help with the withdrawal symptoms some may experience when recovering from a substance use disorder. Here are a few common symptoms, and suggestions for how to use nutrition to ease them.

Symptom: Appetite loss

Possible causes:

  • Nausea, headaches, shakiness
  • Rebound effect of discontinuing appetite-stimulating substances

Dietary suggestions:

  • Eat small, frequent meals
  • Use commercial nutritional supplements
  • Limit fatty foods
  • Limit caffeine (450 mg or less) and cigarettes, which further decrease appetite
  • Drink plenty of fluids (juices, milk, ginger ale)

Symptom: Ravenous Appetite (RA), mood swings, and cravings for sugar and caffeine

Possible causes:

  • The body adjusting to absence of substances and seeking out replacements for substances

Dietary suggestions:

  • Establish regular meal patterns 
  • Ensure adequate variety of food
  • Consume small snacks that contain protein
  • Limit sweets and caffeine

Symptom: Fatigue

Possible causes:

  • Body undergoing physical repair
  • Dehydration due to excessive caffeine

Dietary suggestions:

  • Establish regular meal patterns
  • Ensure adequate variety of food
  • Consume small protein-containing snacks
  • Limit sweets and caffeine

Symptom: Insomnia

Possible causes:

  • Body adjusting to absence of substances
  • Stress
  • Anxiety

Dietary suggestions:

  • Consume small amount of complex carbohydrate food (milk, cheese) 1 hour before bed
  • Eliminate or limit caffeine (5-8 hours before bed)

Symptom: Weight fluctuations

Possible causes:

  • Shift in fluid balance
  • Changes in eating habits

Dietary suggestions:

  • None necessary unless condition persists past withdrawal phase

Symptom: Diaherrea 

Possible causes:

  • Gastrointestinal damage
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Excessive juices, milk, concentrated sugars, caffeine, fresh fruits & vegetables

Dietary suggestions:

  • Eat an adequate variety of food
  • Consume moderate amounts of juices, milk, concentrated sugars, caffeine, fresh fruit & vegetables
  • Get an adequate amount of cereal fiber

Symptom: Constipation

Possible causes:

  • Excessive use of laxatives
  • Gastrointestinal damage
  • Changes in eating habits

Dietary suggestions:

  • Increase insoluble fiber
  • Consume plenty of fluids, especially water
  • Be physically active

Symptom: Flatulence

Possible causes:

  • Gastrointestinal damage
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Eating too fast

Dietary suggestions:

  • Limit carbonated beverages
  • Limit foods that may cause distress
  • Eat slowly

Roadblock 4: Meal prep

Preparing healthy meals is often a struggle for everyone, but can be especially tough for someone in recovery who’s closely monitoring their diet. The key? Plan ahead. Making a 1-week menu and buying the food for it earlier in the week will reduce any stress about what to eat later in the week. Recruit the help of friends and family—or even a dietitian!

Here’s a basic outline of how to plan each meal.


Adding some protein into breakfast is a great way to start the day and help control blood sugars (Examples: eggs, meat, fish, poultry, cottage cheese, yogurt, low-fat milk, nut butter). Include a starch (like toast, potatoes, or cereal), and add a fruit or small glass (4oz) of 100% fruit juice. 

Lunch and dinner:

Try to get your plate to look like the MyPlate illustration below. This will include some protein and starch and about half a plate of vegetables. This balanced plate will keep cravings at bay and provide a variety of vitamins and minerals.




Combine a protein and carbohydrate for the most filling snack. (Examples: carrot sticks and hummus, yogurt, fruit with cheese, whole grain crackers and nut butter)


Speak with your doctor or a registered dietitian for advice on what vitamins or minerals you may need. Sometimes a substance use disorder can make your body deficient in specific vitamins, and you’ll need to replenish them with extra supplements instead of just eating a variety of food.

Following these steps will help you provide yourself with a stable nutrition foundation from which to continue your recovery journey.


Jess graduated from Boston University with a Masters of Science in Nutrition. She currently works as a Renal Dietitian at a Boston hospital. When not at the hospital, you can find her baking healthy and unhealthy (yes, dietitians like to eat junk food sometimes too!) foods in the kitchen for her husband and son.

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Nutrition Care Manual
Emerson Hospital Nutrition Services 11/2015. The Importance of Nutrition in Recovery.
Johnson RK, Appel LJ, Brands M, et al. Dietary sugars intake and cardiovascular health: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association.
Circulation. 2009;120:1011-20.

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