"In recovery, we need to focus on the nutrients in our food and then the calories will take care of themselves." - Mary P. Cheney
Before we discuss the nutrients in our food, it's important to get a handle on one of the most misunderstood concepts in nutrition, calories.
What is a Calorie?
Strictly speaking, a calorie is not a specific thing at all but rather a measurement of how much energy a given food provides. When we talk about the number of calories in a food, we are really discussing how much energy the body gets from that food. Calories are not nutrients, and it is possible for a food to provide plenty of calories without many nutrients.
Ideally, we want to have an even balance between the numbers of calories we consume and the amount of energy we expend. But caloric need can vary a great deal among individuals. If you are a professional figure skater who practices six hours a day and competes ten months out of the year, you burn a lot of energy, and you need a fair number of calories to power all that activity and maintain normal bodily processes. If on the other hand, you are an accountant who does a lot of detail work behind a desk and exercises only intermittently, your energy needs are a lot less spectacular. If you eat foods that provide more calories (energy) than your body needs at the time, your body will store it away for later use - in fat cells.
Calories, then, are only the most basic and simplistic of nutritional measures. A food such as sugar or bourbon may provide energy in the form of calories, but it won't provide any of the nutrients that the body needs to help run the "furnace" that burns all that energy.
The Importance of Nutrient Density
The balance of calories to nutrients in a given food is usually referred to as "nutrient density." Nutrient dense foods provide lots of nutrients in relatively few calories, while low nutrient density foods have far more calories than nutrients.
Some examples of nutrient dense foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products, nuts, beans, seeds, eggs, turkey, chicken, fish and lean cuts of meats. These foods provide fewer calories while being excellent sources of nutrients such as the B-vitamins, vitamins A, C, D and E, protein, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, fiber and monounsaturated fatty acids. Vegetables, fruits, grains and beans also contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are natural compounds such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, phytochemicals promote good health in recovery.
Some examples of low nutrient density foods include cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, puddings, doughnuts, jams, syrups, jelly, sweetened fruit drinks, "fast foods" such as fries, fried chicken etc; ice cream, chips, salted snacks, candy, soda, and energy/sports drinks. These foods are high in calories but low in nutrients and should only be eaten sparingly or better yet, avoided in recovery.
Unfortunately, most people with alcohol and/or substance abuse problems, as well as, those with eating disorders tend to consume these low nutrient density foods in the form of highly processed fast foods, junk foods, and so called "convenience" foods that contain huge amounts of refined carbohydrates, artificial additives, and unnatural fats. When this poor diet is compounded by alcohol intake, drug use, or the devastating effects of binging, purging, excessive exercising, and inappropriate dieting it provokes an even greater nutritional crisis wherein the already overburdened body must draw on stored nutrients in order to function. If we really intend to nourish the body, we must give it not only the nutrients it needs to function right now, but also the nutrients it requires to replenish those lost nutritional stores.
Focus on the Quality of The Calories Not Quantity
If we focus only on our caloric intake in recovery we will set ourselves up for nutritional disaster. For example, while almost anyone could survive and perhaps even loose weight eating 1200 calories a day of low nutrient density foods like soda, ice cream, and chips; you would not only be malnourished but you would feel really lousy doing it. This is because a malnourished brain is a malfunctioning one with the body exhibiting the symptoms of this dysfunction. And for those of us in recovery, a diet of low nutrient density but high in calories foods will not only perpetuate the cycle of nutritional deficiency but could also result in feelings of depression, fatigue, anxiety, mood swings, concentration problems, and cravings which could interfere with the recovery process.
When eating for recovery, we need to start putting the focus on the nutrients in the foods we consume and less on the calories and then the calories will take care of themselves. In other words, we need to focus on the quality of the calories not the quantity. While knowing how many calories a day your body requires is helpful, it need not be a blue print for eating in recovery.
Practice Portion Size
While those of us in recovery may be free from calorie counting, we are not free from the practice of choosing healthy portion sizes when eating our meals and snacks. As I like to tell my husband, "You can have a grass-fed organic steak but you can't have half the cow." In recovery while many of us are learning what "normal" is for the first time; we also need to learn what healthy normal portion sizes are for our meals and snacks.
Choose High Nutrient Density Foods over Low Nutrient Density Foods
When choosing foods that will nourish your body, mind, and spirit in recovery, you need to choose high nutrient density foods over low nutrient density foods. And in order to do that, you need to know what they are, how to shop for them, prepare them, and cook them; so that you can make the changes that will help your brain (and the rest of your body) heal so that you can experience the joy of a healthy recovery. Our blog and our book, "Food For Recovery" is here to assist you in this journey to wellness. The choice, and the power, are yours.
Health and Happiness,
Mary P. Cheney, B.Sc., P.T.A.