This April, Culinary Services Group was set to make an appearance at NATCON in Austin, Texas. Even though NATCON has been canceled this year due to COVID-19, we still wanted to pass along some of the valuable information we were going to bring with us.
With April being Alcohol Awareness Month, we want to discuss nutrition’s role in recovery from alcoholism. According to the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 14.8 million people age 12 or older have an alcohol use disorder.
Before entering treatment, individuals who abuse alcohol may consume up to or more than 15 alcoholic drinks per day. This can be equal to or exceed a full day’s worth of recommended calories. Alcohol has been shown to function as an appetite suppressant or modifier, so it’s not surprising that individuals who consume alcohol throughout the day often report little to no interest in consuming regular meals and snacks and may experience malnutrition alongside a substance use disorder.
When alcohol or other substances are prioritized over basic nutrition, individuals can experience a variety of nutrient, vitamin, and mineral deficiencies. These can be severe enough to cause visual, mental, and hormone disturbances, extreme fatigue and lethargy, skin issues, compromised bone and dental health, and organ damage. When an individual experiencing alcohol or substance dependence comes to your behavioral healthcare community for treatment, proper nutrition, diet, and education are all vital components to a sustainable recovery.
Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Alcohol Abuse Patients
One of the most common deficiencies found in alcohol abuse patients and those with alcoholic liver disease (ALD) is zinc. A zinc deficiency in these ALD patients can cause decreased food intake and can manifest as skin lesions, poor liver regeneration, altered mental status, or altered immune function. Promisingly, some studies have found that proper zinc supplementation can help improve ALD and reverse clinical signs of zinc deficiency.
Zinc can be added to a person’s diet in the form of a daily supplement, but zinc is also found in some very common, delicious foods that your dining program can create menus around. Foods that contain zinc include red meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds, nuts, dairy, eggs, whole grains, potatoes, and dark chocolate.
Other deficiencies found in patients with alcoholism include vitamin B1(thiamine) and vitamin B2(riboflavin). In fact, about 80% of those with alcohol addiction have reduced serum B-1 or thiamine levels, an important nutrient for cellular function.
When someone who abuses alcohol is lacking B vitamins, they may experience cognition and memory impairment. Foods that can help increase B vitamins include whole grains, meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, seeds, nuts, dark leafy vegetables, and fruits.
A lack of B9 (folate or folic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine) can slow down the body’s production of serotonin and dopamine while drinking alcohol can temporarily boost serotonin and dopamine, thus masking B6 deficiency symptoms. Serotonin and dopamine are neurotransmitters that we call “feel good” chemicals and can boost a person’s mood. When patients are vitamin-malnourished (often lacking a spectrum of B-vitamins), they aren’t feeling their best and may not understand why. They may be tempted to turn back to alcohol to feel better and increase the serotonin or dopamine they’re lacking.
When a patient is recovering from alcoholism, it’s important to show them that healthy foods can also increase serotonin and dopamine production to make them feel great. Foods high in carbohydrates can lead to better serotonin production. Foods that increase the body’s dopamine production include cheese, meats, fish, nuts, and lentils.
Proteins are composed of amino acids, some of which our body can create and others that we must consume through food. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies related to alcohol dependency and abuse can interfere with the body’s ability to metabolize, synthesize, transport, and store these nutrients. Protein deficiency can also reduce blood-clotting factors, which can predispose alcoholics to gastrointestinal bleeding. Animal proteins aren’t the only foods with valuable amino acids, other foods that you can add to your dining program that are good sources of amino acids include nuts, whole grains, broccoli, ancient grains, dark leafy greens, and dried fruits.
Balanced Blood Sugar Can Beat Cravings
Low blood sugar is easy to mistake for a craving for alcohol or sweets because it tells a person’s brain that they need to boost their energy. Healthy eating habits can keep blood sugar steady and help curb those cravings for alcohol or low-nutrient foods. For those in alcohol recovery, a meal plan based on a low glycemic index diet may help to beat alcohol cravings and provide a more sustainable early recovery phase.
Low glycemic index foods include things like whole grain, multigrain, rye, and sourdough bread; whole-grain cereals like rolled oats, muesli, and All-Bran; whole, skin-on fruits like apples, strawberries, apricots, peaches, plums, pears, and kiwi; vegetables like carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, tomatoes, and zucchini; and many more!
Don’t Forget to Educate
A well-balanced diet that treats an alcoholic’s nutrition deficiencies is key to recovery, but so is education. When the patient leaves your community, you want them to be equipped with the right knowledge to continue their healthy eating habits and continue on the road to recovery.
Your dietitian and food service team should be teaching patients how to prepare nutrient-dense foods, how to plan low glycemic index meals at home, and how to choose better snacks that will support their recovery.
You also should emphasize the importance of structured meal times and get them in the habit of providing themselves with routine, predictable, and satiating meals and snacks. Many substance abuse patients may have skipped meals entirely when they were using drugs or alcohol. That’s why one of the biggest ways your dining program can play a role in recovery for everyone is through structured mealtimes that provide nutrient-dense and well-balanced meals. Set times for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks can help people start to build healthy eating habits again.
Check out and share this slideshow, and encourage others to see their food program as a resource to assist in alcohol abuse recovery:
Culinary Services Group works with behavioral healthcare clients and drug and addiction rehabilitation centers across the country to make sure meals are meeting patients’ nutrition therapy needs. If you’d like to learn more about how we can improve the dining program at your behavioral healthcare community, contact us here. We hope to see you at NATCON in 2021!