Diet & Wellbeing


Diet & Wellbeing

The road to recovery involves looking closely at your diet and making small but important steps to improve it. It would be difficult to completely change your diet overnight, especially whilst in treatment or recovery for a substance use or addictive disorder, but knowing what is healthy and nutritious to eat and what is not is a start. You can then try to make small changes to your diet and add to them. Maybe you will immediately notice how different good, nutritious food can make you feel, and you may want to improve your diet more and more.

This way to a better life


Substance use and addictive disorders harm the body by causing negative lifestyle changes such as irregular eating and poor diet which can lead to malnutrition. Even when nutrition is reasonably good, drugs and alcohol can prevent the body from absorbing nutrients and can make malnutrition worse.

Whilst many of the widely used treatment programmes concentrate on the psychological, social and spiritual aspects of dependency and/or addiction, some of the equally important aspects, such as diet and nutrition, can be neglected.

Diet is one of the most important aspects of mental and emotional wellbeing which is often overlooked as unconnected – but how untrue this is!

Think of how lacking in energy, tired and depressed you can feel after eating a big meal, a takeaway meal, lots of sweets, pastries or chocolate, not to mention fizzy, sugary drinks and alcohol. This is because of the huge sugar spike and excessive release of insulin that these can create within your body.

Jordan used to drink excessive amounts of ‘Red Bull. He would get bad cravings if he couldn’t get one. He told me that he would be sick in the morning if he didn’t have a ‘Red Bull’ first thing. ‘Red Bull’ has now been linked to suicide and dependency; there is now an age limit on buying it in the UK.

See Energy Drink Dependency.

Cannabis can increase appetite and hence some long-term users may be overweight. Balanced nutrition can help to improve mood and health which is why it is important to encourage a healthy diet in a person recovering from a substance use or addictive disorder. However, someone who has just given up an important part of pleasure may not be ready to make too many other drastic lifestyle changes at this stage, so small changes are sometimes easier. When a person feels healthy, they are less likely to start using alcohol, drugs or partaking in addictive disorders again.

It is important to try to eat healthy meals and snacks and avoid high sugar/calorie foods with low nutrition. See ‘Food and Drinks to Avoid’ and ‘Healthy Food and Drinks’ for recommendations.

Sugar and caffeine can generate mood swings so reducing your intake of both is highly recommended.

The advice is to try to eat three balanced meals a day, but what is a balanced meal? Remember that not everyone’s tastes are the same and what may appeal to one person may not appeal to another. We must be happy with what we are eating but also be sensible. Allergies and Food intolerances are also to be considered as they can have a severe effect on the immune system and also on the mental and emotional health of a person. If in doubt it is best to get tested for these.

To maintain a balanced diet there are certain foods and drinks to be encouraged and certain foods and drinks to be avoided.

Food and Drinks to Avoid:

  • Sugar
  • Sugary beverages
  • Fizzy Pop
  • Energy Drinks e.g. Red Bull
  • Breakfast cereals high in sugar
  • Flavoured coffee drinks with syrup
  • Packaged snack foods
  • Pretzels, crackers, crisps
  • French Fries
  • Pizza
  • Takeaways
  • Processed Foods
  • Biscuits and cakes
  • Fruit Juice (in excess)
  • Junk Food
  • Alcohol (in excess)
  • High mercury fish (tinned tuna, fresh tuna, swordfish)
  • Artificial Sweeteners (aspartame)
  • White bread, rice, white pasta
  • Dressings and sauces
  • Doughnuts

Healthy Food and Drinks:

  • Water
  • Coconut Water
  • Water with natural lemon
  • Unsweetened Greek yoghurt
  • Fruit: All fruits including: blueberries, strawberries, banana, raspberries, apples, pears – best eaten in the morning
  • Fatty Fish i.e. salmon, herrings, mackerel
  • Chicken and turkey
  • Leafy greens e.g. spinach and kale
  • Most vegetables e.g. broccoli, carrots, squash, swede, asparagus, spinach
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Eggs
  • Nuts
  • Beans, lentils and other grains, oats
  • Meat in moderation
  • Potatoes in a balanced meal
  • Avocados
  • Salads
  • Dark chocolate (in moderation)

Healthy Diet

But how do we achieve this healthy diet and, more to the point, enjoy following a healthy diet? The more informed that you are, the easier this becomes. The number of calories needed by a body is dependent on various elements including age, sex, metabolism, physical activity, stage of growth and whether you’re pregnant. Average guidelines recommend three meals a day with men consuming 2,500 and women 2,000. Lots to consider, but the easiest way is to follow the basic outline below.

A balanced diet consists of carbohydrates, protein, fat, fibre, vitamins, minerals and water. These should be consumed in ‘balanced’ proportions as below:

Carbohydrates for energy (45% – 65%) – Vegetables, fruits, potatoes, sweet potatoes, lentils, beans, oats, quinoa, brown rice, pasta.

Protein for tissue growth and maintenance (10% to 30%) – Meat, fish, poultry, nuts, eggs, soya beans and pulses, turkey, shrimp.

Fat for energy and energy storage – Nuts, seeds, plant oils, dairy products
Fat for hormone production (20% – 33%) – Milk and cheese, dark chocolate, avocado, fatty fish, olive oil, salmon, tofu, eggs.

Fibre included in carbohydrates for regulating blood sugar levels, bowel function and bowel health – Peas, beans, vegetables, fruits, oats, whole grains, brown rice, nuts seeds, quinoa, chickpeas, sweet potatoes.

Vitamins and minerals for metabolism regulation, aiding cell growth, other biochemical functions – Specific to each vitamin/mineral and if a balanced diet is maintained additional supplements shouldn’t be required.

Water for maintaining hydration – Approx. 20% of water intake comes from food. The recommended daily intake of water is 1.5 to 2 litres daily.


Most of us don’t realise the impact of a high sugar diet on depression, anxiety and mood disorders. In the modern diet, not only are we consuming sugar-loaded beverages, cakes, buns, biscuits and sweets, but we are also consuming a lot of sugar often hidden in processed foods with some breakfast cereals being amongst the worst. Amongst some of the more commonly known added sugars are corn syrup, maltodextrin, high fructose corn syrup, fructose, dextrose and maple syrup.

There is now a growing body of evidence that indicates that sugar has an addictive potential just like substance use and addictive disorders. That is because sugar and processed ‘junk’ foods trigger the same chemical, dopamine, as other substances that cause dependency and/or addiction like cocaine, alcohol, cannabis etc. Dopamine floods the brain with the feel-good factor and over time this can change the chemistry of the brain and thus its function. In the short-term, sugar can provide a quick energy boost but as blood sugar plummets, it can cause irritability, tiredness, lack of concentration and other mood problems, worsening already present depression and anxiety problems and creating even worse outcomes for individuals with more severe mental issues.

Sugar in Diet

Research has found that numerous countries with high sugar intake also have a high rate of depression.

Too much sugar can cause inflammation in the brain and body. More and more studies are linking depression and anxiety with inflammation. Clinical depression is associated with a 30% increase of inflammation in the brain. Increasingly, evidence is suggesting that inflammation may drive some depressive symptoms, such as low mood, loss of appetite and reduced ability to sleep.

Sugar and Mental Health: a toxic combination

18 foods that are surprisingly high in sugar:

  • Low fat yoghurt
  • BBQ and other sauces
  • Ketchup
  • Fruit Juice
  • Pasta Sauce
  • Sports Drinks
  • Chocolate Milk
  • Granola
  • Flavoured Coffees
  • Iced Tea
  • Protein Bars
  • Vitamin Water
  • Pre-Made Soups
  • Cereal Bars
  • Canned Fruit
  • Canned Baked Beans
  • Bottled Smoothies
  • Breakfast Cereals

Poor Sleep and tiredness

Too much sugar during the day can mess with your blood sugar levels and cause energy spikes and crashes. You may struggle to stay awake during the day and frequently doze off. If you eat sugary foods in the evening, sugar will pump round your bloodstream and could keep you awake. It also shortens the length of time you sleep as you may not go into deep sleep; so you will not wake up refreshed in the morning; which will worsen your anxiety and depression.

Recommended Daily Sugar Intake:

The UK Government recommends that free sugars and sugars found naturally in honey, fruit, vegetables etc should make up no more than 5% of your calorie intake per day.

Adults – should have no more than 30g of free sugars per day (approximately 7 sugar cubes)
Children aged 7 to 10 years – should have no more than 24g of free sugars per day (approximately 6 sugar cubes)
Children aged 4 to 6 years – should have no more than 19g of free sugars per day (approximately 5 sugar cubes per day)

Children under 4 years old – there are no specific guidelines; but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter or that the intake of free sugars doesn’t impact on their wellbeing. It’s highly recommended that they avoid sugar sweetened drinks and food with sugar added to it.

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Exercise is one of the first things to consider when in recovery. It doesn’t have to be anything too extreme; gentle exercise, just moving the body is good. Exercise relieves and reduces both physical and psychological stress and can help you to get rid of any negative emotions that you have been keeping in.

Exercising outside is a great option, be it walking, running or cycling if you don’t feel like going to the gym. Any exercise that leaves your mind and body able to get fresh air is extremely beneficial, and if the sun is out this can really lift your mood and give you a vitamin D boost at the same time. Walk to the shops, walk to the park, breathe and look around you at nature.

After exercise, you can often feel energised and more motivated. Exercise makes the blood pump around the body more rapidly, thereby oxygenating cells and muscles and improving your health and fitness. It can also give you something to look forward to in your day, something to focus on, and something that makes you feel good.

Exercise Running

Exercise naturally and positively alters your brain chemistry and causes the release of endorphins which create a natural high and feel-good factor. These are the same endorphins produced when you are taking substances or participating in an addictive disorder. However, misuse of substances such as drugs and alcohol also cause an imbalance that interferes with a person’s ability to feel pleasure, happiness and satisfaction. Exercise during treatment and recovery will help you to reintroduce natural endorphins into your system. This re-educates your body so that it can regulate its own brain chemistry and mood in a healthy way.

Exercise can help to put some structure back in your life. It is good to try and have a weekly plan in place. Try to stick to it; you will reap the rewards.

Exercise is like ‘meditation in motion’, meaning that by concentrating on the physical, you can experience the psychological and emotional benefits of meditation. It improves your outlook and it is a fact that those who exercise have increased feelings of self-confidence, reduced feelings of depression and anxiety. If you have someone to run or walk with, that’s even better as you are experiencing social interaction at the same time. You will feel better for exercising as you are doing something for yourself, your body, your mind and your energy.

Getting sleep can be an extremely difficult problem in treatment and recovery; exercise helps to improve sleep quality, quantity and helps to create better sleep patterns.

Besides exercise there are many different sports that you can consider or groups that you could join. You could get involved in group classes like yoga, Pilates or spin to name but a few. Aikido is an interesting, non-combative martial art sport which can be useful in recovery. Exercise is a great tool on the road to recovery and you never know, you may make some new friends along the way. Good luck on your journey.