Addiction ravages your whole body, not just your mind. Yet most programs of recovery often only treat the mental and emotional impact of substance use disorder, leaving physiological recovery sorely lacking. This gap in healing can make us vulnerable to coping with the physical changes that occur with recovery.
Physical recovery — much like mental healing — is complex. It can take years to achieve peace with our bodies. During that process, we often uncover a disordered relationship with not only our bodies but also with food.
I don’t deny that the first few months of recovery helped me to feel somewhat better emotionally. And in some respects, that is the priority: to get our mental well-being managed first so that we have a basis for sustainable recovery. However, omitting physical recovery can create an unstable foundation as we may turn to unhelpful coping strategies — like disordered eating and fad diets — to cope with the physiological changes that occur during recovery.
When I entered recovery, my heavy, bloated body weighed over 300 pounds — which is heavier than I’d ever been — and it ached with pain. I was severely depressed, struggling with mood swings, and feeling emotionally broken.
During those first two years of recovery, I experienced a significant increase in appetite, with an insatiable desire for high-energy foods like cakes, bread, cookies, pasta, and cheese. I would spend time at AA meetings obsessing over what I was going to buy on the way home for my evening binge in front of the TV. Physically, I didn’t experience much recovery other than my liver regenerating as my liver function tests returned to normal. I still felt exhausted all the time and had no energy to do anything other than go to work and come home to bed. Going to meetings was a drag, and I’d much rather have been laying on the sofa or in bed. I was utterly miserable.
I would spend time at AA meetings obsessing over what I was going to buy on the way home for my evening binge in front of the TV. Physically, I didn’t experience much recovery other than my liver regenerating as my liver function tests returned to normal.
I felt torn: on the one hand I was making great progress with substance use disorder recovery by staying sober, but I felt like I was on a self-destructive path using food as a weapon against my body. Lacking sufficient information about what was happening to me physiologically, I turned to restrictive diets that promised — but rarely delivered — quick results: the Atkins diet, Weight Watchers, paleo, sugar-free, the Wheat Belly Diet, and Slimming World. I thought that I just needed to omit troubling food groups, weigh every ounce of food, or even join another 12-step fellowship where I had to tell someone what I was going to eat every day.
I quickly discovered that those diets weren’t solutions: they were an addiction in themselves, and they weren’t sustainable — I was destined to fail because, as studies show, diets don’t work. What I was actually dealing with was a deficiency within my brain chemistry, in particular, a lack of feel-good chemicals dopamine and serotonin. This caused depression, and I was using food to self-medicate and make myself feel better – just like I did with alcohol.
I quickly discovered that those diets weren’t solutions: they were an addiction in themselves, and they weren’t sustainable — I was destined to fail because, as studies show, diets don’t work.
Once I had that realization, I was halfway toward healing my body. Instead of diets, I needed to focus on boosting my mood. I did this by improving my gut health through probiotics and eating less processed foods and more plant foods — over 90 percent of serotonin is created in the gut — and with exercise and medication. That boosted my mood considerably and I had fewer cravings for the foods that I had been binging on. What’s interesting is that when I now crave those foods, I see it as a warning sign that my mood is off.
I’d like to say that healing my relationship with food and my body was as simple as focusing on improving my mood, but it wasn’t. As you’ll have discovered by now, recovery isn’t simple — it’s complex. It requires a lot of uncovering, increasing awareness, reprogramming, and practice.
What I needed to focus on next was my psychological relationship to food and how I had equated my worth to my size. This has taken years to heal, but it doesn’t have to once you realize that diet culture makes us think our size determines our worth. My hope is that once more people are aware of diet culture and how harmful it can be, particularly to people in recovery, we can fast-forward our healing process by rejecting that culture.
First, let’s look at what diet culture is. Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, is an intuitive eating coach and anti-diet dietician, and she defines diet culture as: “A system of beliefs that:
- Worships thinness and equates it to health and moral virtue, which means you can spend your whole life thinking you’re irreparably broken just because you don’t look like the impossibly thin ‘ideal.’
- Promotes weight loss as a means of attaining higher status, which means you feel compelled to spend a massive amount of time, energy, and money trying to shrink your body, even though the research is very clear that almost no one can sustain intentional weight loss for more than a few years.
- Demonizes certain ways of eating while elevating others, which means you’re forced to be hyper-vigilant about your eating, ashamed of making certain food choices, and distracted from your pleasure, your purpose, and your power.
- Oppresses people who don’t match up with its supposed picture of ‘health,’ which disproportionately harms women, femmes, trans folks, people in larger bodies, people of color, and people with disabilities, damaging both their mental and physical health.”
What is interesting about diet culture in relation to recovery is that diet culture tells us to ignore our hunger cues, tells us that our external appearance is linked to our worth, and constantly encourages us to shrink ourselves — this is the antithesis of recovery. Recovery isn’t about our external appearance. It is about turning inward. It is about realizing that our worth is internal and our value is based on who we are as a human and how we value ourselves, not what other people think of us or how we are judged by external standards. It is also about getting in touch with our body and our innate needs.
What I needed to focus on next was my psychological relationship to food and how I had equated my worth to my size. This has taken years to heal, but it doesn’t have to once you realize that diet culture makes us think our size determines our worth.
A person in recovery engaging in diet culture is potentially creating a further divide within themselves by ignoring their needs and undoing all of the healing worth about self-esteem and self-worth.
How do we reject diet culture? We start by ignoring external messages that tell us how or what to eat and we start listening to our bodies. It looks a lot like practicing the principles of intuitive eating, like eating when hungry, experiencing fullness and enjoyment with food, not labeling food as good or bad and instead looking at it as emotionally neutral, not using exercise as a means of punishment for eating or to earn what we really want to eat, and respecting your body.
“Giving up the pursuit of weight loss is challenging, and even harder the more weight stigma you’ve experienced in your life and the longer you’ve been dieting,” says Harrison. But that is truly the solution here if we want to integrate our recovery into our relationships with our bodies. Rejecting diet culture is another way we can free ourselves in our recovery.