It’s not uncommon for individuals who once struggled with alcohol to turn to food in recovery, especially sugary foods. There are psychological and physiological reasons as to why this occurs. Excessive eating and poor nutrition in recovery can lead individuals to experience a host of physical health issues, including weight gain, which can subsequently result in low mood and make one more vulnerable to an alcohol relapse. As such, it is imperative that individuals recovering from alcohol addiction understand the connection between alcohol and sugar, and acknowledge the importance of nutritional health and physical health in order to maintain their recovery and general wellbeing.
What Is the Connection Between Alcohol and Sugar?
Many alcoholic beverages have excessive amounts of sugar, especially when consuming mixed alcoholic drinks with various sodas, juices, liqueurs or other mixers that are loaded with sugar. While it is a myth that alcohol metabolizes into sugar, alcohol does significantly affect blood sugar levels, causing a yo-yo effect. Initially alcohol raises blood sugar levels, but after the body processes the alcohol blood sugar levels drop dramatically. Alcohol increases insulin secretion and prevents the liver from releasing glucose, causing heavy drinkers to be susceptible to hypoglycemia.
As a result of regular alcohol drinkers becoming tolerant to sugar from their alcohol intake, it is not uncommon for individuals in recovery from alcohol abuse to experience cravings for sugar. Part of the cravings that individuals new to abstinence from alcohol face are actually sugar cravings, not alcohol cravings. The brain and body are craving a sugar fix. Giving in to sugar cravings during recovery from alcohol is commonplace. Rehabilitation centers often offer high-sugar foods as do mutual-help groups. Even the primary text of Alcoholics Anonymous, known as “The Big Book,” encourages those in sobriety to keep candy on hand in order to curb cravings for alcohol.
One of the problems with this is that instead of inducing pleasure from alcohol, such individuals may begin to associate their sugar intake with the feelings of pleasure. Sugar cravings can then replace alcohol cravings, and a sugar addiction can ensue. This is because sugar impacts the same region of the brain as alcohol and drugs, as it stimulates the pleasure center in the brain. Research confirms that sugar has a similar influence on the brain’s reward center as alcohol and drugs. One such study found that sugar activates the brain’s pleasure center as much as drugs such as cocaine, and that sugar can be even more rewarding than alcohol and drugs.
What Problems Can Individuals In Recovery Face With Respect To Nutrition?
It is not uncommon for individuals who have a history of substance abuse to not take care of their physical health. Alcohol and drugs in and of itself can wreak havoc on internal organs. For example, heavy alcohol use can affect the liver, heart, brain, and pancreas in a variety of consequential ways. Alcohol use also compromises the immune system and can be a contributing factor of various types of cancer. Poor nutrition in recovery can serve to exacerbate pre-existing health concerns.
Furthermore, those who abuse alcohol may be overweight or underweight, malnourished, and have macro- and micro-nutrient deficiencies as a result of years of poor nutrition on an alcoholic liquid diet. Food, especially high-sugar foods, should not be a substitute for alcohol. Those who are not cautious may transfer their alcohol addiction to a sugar addiction or food addiction. As such, focusing on restoring physical health through proper nutrition should be a fundamental component of one’s alcohol recovery treatment plan.
Why Is It Important To Focus on Nutritional Health In Recovery From Alcohol Addiction?
High-calorie, high-sugar, low-nutrient foods are frequently a go-to in early recovery, and are frequently served at some rehabilitation centers and mutual-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The mindset some have in early recovery is “as long as I’m not drinking…”. In other words, if it takes a pack of cigarettes and a pint of ice cream a day in order to not drink, do whatever it takes. “I’ll deal with the food issue later once I’m more stable in my sobriety.” It’s easy to overlook the dangers of sugar or overeating when you were a blackout drinker.
The problem is that poor nutrition can lead to a variety of mental and physical health issues. Weight gain is a common problem for those new to recovery from alcohol addiction, and subsequently can lead to low mood which may then trigger a relapse to alcohol. At that time the individual’s mindset can become, “when I was drinking I wasn’t eating all this food.” The alcohol numbed their depression and quieted their negative thoughts about their self-image.
Studies show that individuals who are obese experience more severe depression than their non-obese counterparts. Furthermore, the same study found that obesity is associated with hopelessness, which is also a common feeling associated with substance abusers. As such, overweight individuals may be more susceptible to alcohol relapse than if they were to maintain their physical health through proper nutrition and physical activity.
How To Handle Sugar Cravings In Recovery From Alcohol Addiction?
Sugar affects the brain’s neural pathways, and weight gain affects the individual’s self-esteem and poses a risk to an alcohol relapse. As such, individuals in recovery from alcohol should prioritize their nutrition and pay attention to their sugar intake. Addiction specialists and addiction treatment centers are placing more focus on the nutritional component of recovery. Many addiction professionals have developed a holistic treatment approach that focuses on mind-body connection, paying particular attention to food as part of the treatment process.
Eating certain foods high in nutrients may help improve mood while foods low in nutritional value and high in sugar may be a hinderance to one’s mood. Eating a whole foods plant based diet can help stabilize blood sugar levels, resulting in a reduction of sugar cravings as well as alcohol cravings. When you eat well you feel well, it’s that simple. Maintaining a healthy nutritional lifestyle is a form of self-care and is indicative of caring about your wellbeing, in which case you will be more inclined to care about your sobriety.
Some simple tips to handle sugar cravings include:
Some may also benefit from working with a nutritionist, dietician, health coach, nutritional coach, nutritional therapist, or other such professionals in order to improve their relationship with food.
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