Gaining weight when we get sober is a rite of passage for many of us.
Weight gain in early recovery is often accompanied by guilt, shame, and heightened emotions. “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 people with substance use disorder when they get sober.
Weight Gain After Sobriety
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 require a lot of energy—my liver completely regenerated in 8 weeks—hence the insatiable appetite. What’s more, our brains and emotions are all out of whack. When you take substances—whether alcohol, cocaine, or opioids—you cause a surge of chemicals in the brain that are responsible for our sense of well-being, motivation, energy, and movement, and impact our mental health.
It makes sense, therefore, that when you get into recovery, that the brain feels lacking in those chemicals. To remedy this, we seek other pleasure-seeking substances that can cause a release of dopamine: food (particularly sweet, calorie-laden, salty, fried foods), sex, nicotine, gambling, etc. 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.
For some of us, substance use was characterized by malnutrition
When you’re drinking all of your calories or when you are disconnected from the reality of hunger and hygiene due to drug use, you’re unlikely to be eating three square meals a day. (Or several small, nutritious meals, or whatever works best for you.) So when we enter recovery, we’re often resuming making food choices again for the first time in years. In this case, gaining weight is not only reasonable, it means our bodies and digestion are functioning properly.
While our society tends to have a negative view of weight gain, it’s important to remember that it may be a sign that we’re developing healthy habits again after a period of not nourishing our bodies.
It is not loving to feed ourselves sugar, eat cake every single day, and binge on fast food.
I wallowed in sugary and fatty foods for the first 18 months of my recovery. I gained a lot of weight, but I was following the advice of people in long-term recovery. These people told me to carry around a bag of candy and drink sugary drinks because my body needed it after years of heavy drinking. 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 meals and energy-dense foods—not sugar. All pure sugar will do is cause a spike in blood sugar and then cause a big dip (a bit like a comedown) in blood sugar and energy levels—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 stop your weight gain and develop healthier habits. 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.
If three nutritious meals a day sounds overwhelming, try incorporating more fruits and vegetables into your diet. Adding more fruits and vegetables can be an entry point to the path of eating more balanced meals. You can also spend a couple of hours a week on meal prepping your meals for the week. 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 well-balanced, nutritious foods. And they don’t have to be boring either—healthy food can be vibrant and delicious.
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 and help you sleep better. Again, small changes are the way to go. If it is hard to start, go on a gentle, weekly walk with a friend in recovery for accountability. Slowly you can start taking walks on your own. Download a fitness app and do exercises inside the house if that is more comfortable. Try new things like cycling, volleyball, dancing, swimming, or hiking. Personally, my go-to activity is yoga and meditation. I feel emotionally and physically better after a yoga session. Ideally, you want to exercise 3- 4 days a week. Movement equals more endorphins.