Eating For Mental Wellness

It is often said in recovery circles that those who struggle with drug and alcohol addiction are permitted to “slay the dragon” while those who struggle with food addiction are forced to walk the dragon three times per day.  However, every type of addiction (including compulsive behaviors around sex and gambling) comes together in the struggle to find the best recovery diet.  Why?  Because diet is one of the most consistent sources of fascination and research in our world, as evidenced by the number of times we change it in our lifetimes, our constant willingness to read about it, and its consistency in publication. (Current government guidelines available here

Our diet’s connection to our mental wellness is a concern for all people; therefore, it’s a concern for people in recovery- but it’s a concern for them most particularly due to the nutrients alcohol and drugs rob them of, the damage anorexic and bulimic behaviors cause, and the co-occurring issues of nutrient neglect and self-care problems that go along with all other addictions.

Areas of Addiction-Related Nutrition Deficiencies


Many people in recovery struggle with concentration and alertness, utilizing a lot of their focus on recovery tasks at the same time that the enormity of the change overwhelms them.

  • Tyrosine, an amino acid, allows our brains and bodies to produce dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters which we struggle to produce in recovery, a stressful situation that yields its depletion.
    • Foods high in tyrosine:  lean beef, whole grains, lamb, cheese, soybeans, bananas, sunflower seeds


People may find as they go through therapy that they are having a difficult time relaxing, although it is necessary to do so to assist the brain in having insight.  

  • Glutamine is the amino acid needed to make GABA (Gamma-aminobutyric Acid), the neurotransmitter that promotes mental relaxation and prevents chronic anxiety, one of the main reasons people become addicted to substances to begin with.  
    • Foods high in glutamine:  cherry tomatoes, kefir, and shrimp, kale, parsley, beef, chicken, dairy, brussel sprouts, eggs, carrots, beans, spinach, papaya, and celery

Adjusting to Change

Recovery is a time when emotions run high, when people are adjusting to new schedules (sleep, meals, plans, new activities), and when they can feel easily embarrassed.  

  • Consumption of foods containing the amino acid tryptophan yields serotonin production, a neurotransmitter that may have been disrupted during addiction.
    • Foods high in tryptophan:  oat bran, lentils, turkey, cheese, pork, tuna, and lamb (Ciulla, 2018)

Pain Relief

Many drugs disrupt the production of endorphins or our own bodies’ own version of drugs, which are produced in response to pain or stress.  They naturally relieve pain and block pain signals, coming in particularly handy in situations like recovery when we may feel irritable or isolated.

  • Consumption of the amino acids glycine and leucine assist in the production of endorphins.
    • Foods high in glycine and leucine:  steak, bresaola, veal, guinea fowl, gelatin powder, turkey, chicken, pork

Changing Your Diet in Recovery

As you journey on the road to recovery, it’s important to think about what’s realistic to expect from yourself as you seek to make these lifestyle changes. Being kind to yourself throughout this process is just as important to your mental wellness as being at peace with the number on the scale. 

Some additional, possible ideas for easing your way into a better diet include:

  • Modulating high-calorie foods with healthier foods or exercise
  • Eating smaller amounts of comfort foods, or eating them less often
  • Trying low-calorie versions of comfort foods, remembering not to increase your portion size.  
  • Try taking your mind off of what you are consuming periodically, and make it, literally, about balance- to give your mind a bit of a vacation.  Make it OK to eat everything and see how you do.  Your kilocalorie (calorie) intake should be in sync with how much is burned.  So, if I take in 100 calories, and burn 50, then I need to keep in mind that my total calorie intake was really 50.  Fat should be no more than 30% of your intake, and sugars (like sugary candy and sugar in tea) should be no more than 10%.

Remember that now that you are in recovery, a lot of things will change about you, and you have already accomplished one of the hardest changes of all. Ideas that once felt beyond your reach before may work for you now!


Above all, know that true pursuit of healthy living and mental wellness involves addressing the underlying symptoms which were avoided in the first place and embracing new, balanced rules for living. Nutritional counseling is a part of our holistic approach here at The Haven as we help restore our clients to mental wellness. Connect with us today to learn more about our programs. 

Mahoub, N., Rizk, R., Karavetian, M., de Vries, N. (2020). Nutritional status and eating habits of people who use drugs and/or are undergoing treatment for recovery: A narrative review. Nutrition Reviews, 79(6).

Ciulla, A. (3 December, 2018). You’re in recovery. What should you eat? U. S. News & World Report.

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