Gaining weight when we get sober is a rite of passage for many of us.
These extra pounds are often accompanied by guilt and shame. I was thinner when I drank four bottles of wine a day, I’d tell my sponsor when I was flummoxed by my insatiable appetite. This is the story I hear repeated by many women when they get sober.
It is normal to gain weight in recovery. There, I said it.
It’s true: when we get sober, our body has to recover from the years of damage we caused to it. Cell repair and growth requires a lot of energy—my liver completely regenerated in 8 weeks—hence the insatiable appetite. What’s more, our brain is all out of whack. When you take substances—whether alcohol, cocaine, or opioids—you release a surge of chemicals in the brain that are responsible for our sense of well-being, motivation, energy, and movement.
It makes sense, therefore, that when you get sober, that the brain is lacking in those chemicals; so the brain seeks out those chemicals in other pleasure-seeking substances: food (particularly sweet, calorie-laden, salty, fried foods), sex, nicotine, gambling. It is called addiction transfer. And it is not your fault. This neurological process has the ability to override rational thought in pursuit of pleasure. This is why you eat a whole pack of cookies and have no idea how it happened. It is the same reason we had one drink and couldn’t stop there.
Let’s think about this for a moment: you get sober—the most life-changing, life-saving, loving action you could possibly take—and then you beat yourself up for gaining weight. It makes no sense. When we appreciate what a loving and caring action we have taken for ourselves by getting sober, we need to extend that care and love to how we treat our bodies and how we talk to ourselves.
It is not loving to feed ourselves sugar, eat cake every single day, and binge on fast food.
I know, I did this for the first 18 months of my recovery. Not only did I gain a lot of weight, I was following the advice of people in long-term recovery: they told me to carry around a bag of candy and drink sugary drinks because my body needed it. Heck, even the AA book Living Sober tells you that many have found eating sweets allays the urge to drink. It is simply not true.
Your body needs energy from nutritious and energy-dense foods—not sugar. All that will do is cause a spike in blood sugar, make you manic for a short while, and then cause a big dip (a bit like a comedown) in blood sugar—leading you to crave more sugary foods. While some may not be as sensitive to foods as others, some of us have a history of eating disorders, so this encouragement—even if it is well intended—can be harmful.
The reality of getting sober means you are highly likely to gain weight.
The good news is that it is entirely possible to reverse that. Why not focus on how you can fuel your body to help it recover? I’m not advocating for eating a 100% clean diet—in fact, I hate using the word ‘clean’ or any other word that attaches negative/judgmental meanings to it—I am saying eat well as a whole.
By all means eat something sweet, but perhaps do it after exercise, or find a naturally sweetened alternative to something full of sugar. It is possible to retrain the brain to find pleasure in whole, nutritious foods. And they don’t have to be boring either—just take a look at my Instagram feed to see all of the delicious and vibrant foods that I eat. My food is far from dull and boring.
You might find that exercise can produce endorphins which boost mood just like food and other substances can do, but more naturally. Exercise is also a great tool to reduce anxiety, help with sleep and lead to better food choices.
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Located in Portland, OR, Olivia Pennelle (Liv) is an experienced writer, journalist, and coach. She is the founder of the popular site Liv’s Recovery Kitchen, a site dedicated to helping people flourish in their recovery. Liv is passionate about challenging limiting mentalities and empowering others to direct their own lives, health, and recovery. You can find her articles across the web on podcasts and addiction recovery websites, including The Fix, Recovery.org, Ravishly, and The Recovery Village. Liv was recently featured in VICE.