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Changing Your Diet & Drinking Habits in Recovery

Everything you put into your body has some impact on it and/or your brain, but most people don’t think about how what they are eating and drinking throughout the day might impact their mood or mental health. If you’re in recovery, you might find that you need to adapt your diet.

Why would being in recovery impact my diet?

Learning and integrating new habits

You may have heard the phrase “food is fuel” – the food and drinks you put into your body determine the nutrients you get and impact how you’re able to function. Eating with mental health in mind can benefit anyone, but especially people in mental health recovery. Depending on your previous or current eating habits, this could be a significant change to your lifestyle. You may also need (or want) to change your relationship with alcohol and/or caffeine.

Digestive and gut issues

Your body is very reactive to change – even good change is often a stressor. As your mindset and lifestyle change, you might notice gastrointestinal effects because of how your body reacts to stress. While the core issue here is stress, you might need to make temporary changes to your diet to avoid an upset stomach or other gastrointestinal symptoms.

Medication complications

Digestive issues are common side effects of mental health medications. You might find a medication that works great for your mood but requires you to change your diet to limit stomach problems or make sure you’re getting proper nourishment. For some medications to work best, you may be required to cut or limit alcohol or caffeine intake. Many older medications used to treat depression (especially MAOIs) have a lot of dietary restrictions.

I hate this.

You’re not alone in feeling like that. Managing your mental health takes a lot of work, and your eating and drinking habits can feel like an overwhelming part of the picture. There are two main frustrations that you might experience:

Changing my behaviors is too hard.

Breaking any kind of habit is difficult, but food has an especially strong emotional pull. Your eating habits are partly built within the reward pathways of your brain. For example, you might have used eating or drinking as a coping skill in the past and now need to not only change a harmful habit, but find a new way to deal with stress and other uncomfortable emotions. It’s especially difficult if you have to make changes that you don’t even want to make. Doing the right thing for your health can feel more burdensome than beneficial. It’s not fair, but think of it this way: Your health is valuable, and you’re worth taking proper care of.

Tips to make behavior change easier

  • Try to reframe self-care as self-parenting. Not everything that feels good counts as self-care. It’s easy to overdo it on too many things that feel good but don’t help you “treat yourself.” Try looking at situations as if you’re making decisions for a child’s or loved one’s health.
  • Find someone to help you stay accountable. It’s a lot easier to make changes – and stick to them – when someone else is cheering for you and keeping you on the right track. This can be a friend, therapist, or online support group.
  • Practice radical acceptance. Your feelings about having to make these changes are valid no matter what – but accepting the situation as it is can help you take some power back. It doesn’t mean you’re happy about situation or that it isn’t painful, but it’s a big step in moving forward.

Changing my habits is impacting my social life.

Maybe you can’t be as spontaneous as your friends because you now need to eat at specific times. Or maybe they always want to go out to eat and you’re not comfortable sharing that you’re struggling with your appetite. You may not get invited out as often when you use excuses like you’re busy. Many social activities revolve around drinking alcohol, and you may feel awkward or shamed when you express a need to avoid that. Even if your friends are accepting and supportive, feeling left out of gatherings or like you can’t enjoy the social life you used to is tough.

Tips for challenging social situations

  • Open up to your friends. If you haven’t yet talked to your friends about your mental health and recovery, that can be a great first step. You don’t have to get into a big conversation about it – just them knowing what’s going on with you can help take the pressure off and reduce misunderstandings.
  • Be clear on your boundaries. It can be especially hard to set new boundaries with old friends. Know what your boundaries are before entering a social environment – this means proactively thinking about what situations might come up, what you are and aren’t okay with, and how you might respond in the moment.
  • Connect with the recovery community. If you’re making sudden changes, it’s likely that people in your life will want to know what’s going on. This isn’t a bad thing, but explaining yourself can be exhausting. Befriending others who are in recovery and proactive about their mental wellness can provide social support where it feels easier to be your whole self. You can find others with lived experience in support groups, through mental health programs and providers, or online.