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The Nutritionist in Addiction Treatment

Table of Contents

What is the Role of a Nutritionist in Addiction Treatment?

How does a nutritionist in addiction treatment help your recovery? When you think of addiction treatment, you might think of talking to a psychiatrist or sitting in a circle and talking to others with the same struggles. But other important people play a supportive role in addiction treatment too. One of them is a nutritionist, or a person specially trained in creating healthy eating plans.1

Nutritionists in addiction treatment can help with the evaluation of overall health and provide guidance on what to eat and drink in a way that will help boost energy and enhance physical and mental strength.1 Just as a person overcoming substance abuse must learn to heal mentally, good nutrition can enhance physical health. According to an article in the journal Today’s Dietitian, proper nutrition can enhance the chances of recovery.

Explore how nutritional therapy and support can help in recovery as well as the types of training a nutritionist has in addiction treatment.

What is a Nutritionist?

What Does a Nutritionist Do?

There are a lot of types of nutritionists – a person doesn’t necessarily have to have a specialized college degree to be considered a nutritionist.2 However, there are registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN) or RDNs. If you are considering seeing a nutrition professional, you can ask them about their specific credentials.

It’s important that anyone providing diet advice in recovery has some form of training, such as a license or certification. Because drug and alcohol abuse can affect overall health, introducing the wrong food types could result in feeling more ill. It is vital a nutritionist in addiction treatment has training in how to keep you safe when in recovery.

The goals for nutrition in recovery is to:1

Encourage a healthy lifestyle 

Help even out moods

Promote healing and re-nourishment from substance abuse’s effects

Reduce stress 

Nutritionist vs Dietitian

Every dietitian is a nutritionist. However, not every nutritionist is a dietitian.2 A registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) has a four-year degree that has a specialized nutrition curriculum. They must complete training at a healthcare facility, community program, or other food-related organization, plus pass a certification exam. An RDN may also go on to earn a graduate degree in a specialty field.

A person can earn a certification as a certified nutrition specialist (CNS).2 This requires a master’s degree in nutrition or other science-based field, plus at least 1,000 hours of practice experience, plus passing a nutrition-based exam.

Holistic Nutritionist

A holistic nutritionist is a professional that focuses on a mind-body approach to nutrition and healthy eating. To earn a certification as a holistic nutritionist, a National Association of Nutrition Professionals approved course must be completed, as well as 500 hours of practical experience in the nutrition field.2 There is also a certification exam which the Holistic Nutrition Credentialing Board administers.

How Substance Abuse Disrupts Nutrition


A study published in the journal Nutrition examined the nutrition status of 67 people in a detoxification unit, 73% of which were alcohol dependent. They found that several participants had nutritional deficiencies.3 An estimated 24% had mild to moderate signs of malnutrition. The participants were also asked to fill out a survey about what they knew about nutrition. The researchers found that 88% required advice and guidance when it came to eating and nutrition. The researchers also took blood samples to determine the presence of any nutritional deficiencies.

They found that 50% of the detox patients had the following deficiencies:

21% had low vitamin A levels
8% had low iron levels
12% had low potassium levels
8% had low vitamin C levels

The researchers concluded that poor nutrition occurs frequently in those who struggle with alcohol addiction and drug abuse.3

How Alcohol Causes Poor Nutrition

Alcohol doesn’t offer a lot of calories or nutrition, and it has effects on the body that affects nutritional status.1 Examples include low blood sugar levels, poor appetite, stomach cramping, and stomach ulcers. Drinking heavy amounts of alcohol also affects the body’s ability to absorb proteins. Liver damage over time also impacts the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. This can result in nutritional deficiencies like Vitamin A and zinc.

When there is the presence of alcoholism, it’s important to see a nutritionist who understands how alcohol addiction affects the body.1 Because the body doesn’t process foods the same way, they shouldn’t follow a traditional diet. Instead, it may be recommended to introduce some food types gradually (such as protein). Nutritionists also can help identify nutrients that can help overcome some of the effects of alcohol abuse, such as thiamine (vitamin B intake).


Alcohol isn’t the only addictive substance that can result in nutritional deficiencies. Opioids can cause nutritional deficiencies and effects on the body that impact nutrition.1 Opioids encompass a variety of drugs including: codeine, oxycodone, morphine, and heroin. Opioids can cause stomach upset, diarrhea, and nausea. These affect the way the body absorbs nutrients. As a result, symptoms like diarrhea and electrolyte imbalances can occur.

Heroin, in particular, can cause imbalanced blood sugar levels. Blood sugar can become very high because the body stops being able to tolerate glucose.1 High blood sugar levels can damage the body, especially the nerves.

Nutritional counseling can focus on rebuilding a person’s dietary status and promoting blood sugar control. Ideally, good nutrition can help reduce some of the troublesome symptoms of opioid withdrawals, including problems sleeping and anxiety.1

Crystal Meth

Crystal meth is a stimulant and appetite suppressant.1 People who abuse it often experience significant weight loss, malnutrition, and anorexia. When stimulant abuse stops, problems such as dehydration and electrolyte imbalances can occur. One of the other problems is that an estimated 41.3% of those who abuse methamphetamines suffer from dental disease. This can make eating more difficult, and a nutritionist may consider this when recommending a specific diet.

Nutrition in Recovery

How Does Nutrition Directly Impact Recovery?

Poor nutrition can affect the immune system and cause damage to the body, especially to the brain.1 Low blood sugar can also de-stabilize moods and increase cravings for drugs and alcohol. By emphasizing better nutrition, a nutritionist in addiction treatment can help enhance mood and overall health. These effects can directly impact recovery.

How Does Nutrition Indirectly Impact Recovery?

Nutrition isn’t the only therapy recommended when recovering from drug and alcohol abuse. It’s important to also talk to a therapist and participate in support groups. These approaches can teach how to break the mental connection with substance abuse as well as learn from others who have struggled with substance abuse and found balance in recovery.

Good nutritional therapy can provide the physical strength to participate in recovery efforts. This is an indirect benefit of recovery.

Brain Function and Nutrition

Diets high in refined sugars can create negative effects on the brain. Several studies have found a connection between a sugary diet and impaired brain functions. This was shown to make the symptoms of depression and anxiety worse. Depression and anxiety are common co-occurring disorders that complicate recovery in addiction treatment.

Drug Detox Foods

Nutrition for Recovery from Addiction

Nutritionists in addiction treatment often begin treatment for those in recovery by addressing macronutrients. These are the major categories of food groups needed to feel good and build a healthy immune system. Examples of macronutrients include:4


Carbohydrates include bread, fruits, rice, and any other food the body converts to glucose. When the body doesn’t get enough carbohydrates, blood sugar drops. Low blood sugar can worsen cravings for those struggling with substance abuse. Not only that, but low blood sugar also leads to anxiety and frustration.1 We’ve all dealt with that “hangry” feeling, or suddenly feeling better after eating; this is low blood sugar. Also, carbohydrates contribute to serotonin, which is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for boosting mood.


Proteins contain amino acids, which are the building blocks for neurotransmitters in the brain. If the body doesn’t get enough protein, it can lead to low levels of dopamine, which is a chemical that helps produce feel-good chemicals in the brain.

The Best Drug Detox Foods in General

There was an old belief that during detox, a person should be able to eat whatever they want – such as lots of caffeine or sugar – because it could help someone in recovery find pleasure from food or drinks when they weren’t using drugs or alcohol anymore. Today, nutritionists in addiction treatment know this approach isn’t as beneficial as it once seemed to be.5 Instead, it was like swapping one addiction for another and once a person was out of the detox phase, they had to learn about staying sober and avoiding foods that led to blood sugar crashes, anxiety, and fatigue.

Instead, most nutritionists in addiction treatment advocate starting off on the best and healthiest approaches from the start of detox, according to an article in Psychology Today.5 Some of the key principles of a detox diet include:

Eating breakfast every day

Drinking at least two liters of water every day (about 8 cups) 

Eating fruits or vegetables with every meal and raw vegetables at least once a day 

Eating beans, nuts, or seeds with every meal and snack 

Avoiding sodas, energy drinks, or other highly sweetened drinks 

Avoiding fried foods, artificial sweeteners, and any foods that can’t be placed into the food group system 

In addition, dessert should be enjoyed once or twice a week, with fresh fruit as a treat the other nights.

What Nutrients Support the Liver and Kidneys?

As the major filtration organs of the body, the liver and kidneys are often impacted by substance abuse. A nutritionist in addiction treatment will recommend foods that help benefit these important organs. Examples of foods to incorporate that are liver and kidney-friendly include:

Fibrous Foods

Fiber adds bulk to stool, making it easier to pass through the body. The liver benefits from a high-fiber diet, according to the American Liver Foundation.6 A nutritionist in addiction treatment may recommend foods like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and whole-grain rice.

Drinking Plenty of Water

Water helps reduce the risks of dehydration and allows your kidneys to better filter wastes.

Foods that Promote a Balanced Diet

Whole, fresh foods are liver- and kidney-friendly. Nutritionists in addiction treatment would likely recommend foods like fruits, low-fat cuts of meat, beans, low-fat milk, vegetables, and whole grains. These foods are vastly preferred to high-fat and high-sugar foods.

Diet for Recovering from Alcoholism

The American Liver Foundation recommends people in recovery from alcohol use disorder who’ve experienced scarring and damage to the liver eat a liver-friendly diet (see some of the nutrition tips above). In addition to those tips, it’s important to eat a low-sodium diet. This is because liver damage can affect the way the body balances fluids. The body relies on a protein called albumin to keep fluid in the right places. Because the liver is partially responsible for producing and monitoring albumin, damage can affect fluid balances. This is why some people who have heavily abused alcohol can experience severe swelling of their abdomen.

Avoiding adding salt to foods and refraining from eating fast foods that often have a lot of salt. Also, a nutritionist in addiction treatment can make recommendations regarding protein in your diet, including how much you should eat daily and what types of protein to consume.

Diet for Recovery from Crystal Meth

Vitamins That Help with Meth Withdrawal

A nutritionist in recovery will usually recommend incorporating several key nutrients into a diet when someone is undergoing meth withdrawal. Examples of these include:1

Vitamin B12

This vitamin is important for promoting mood stabilization and nerve transmission in the body. Foods like dairy products, eggs, and lean meats contain vitamin B12.

Omega-3 and Omega-6 Fatty Acids

These two fatty acid types are important in promoting brain health. They’re often found in fatty fish, like salmon, and seeds. However, if you don’t like fish, you can also take supplements that can help enhance your daily intake.

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps to fight inflammation in the body. It’s also important in maintaining skin health. Some nutritionists believe that a diet high in vitamin C can help reduce cravings for meth. Examples of vitamin C-rich foods include oranges, papayas, berries, tomatoes, and spinach.

Crystal Meth Weight Gain

Some people find they do gain weight following crystal meth addiction. This is often because crystal meth is an appetite suppressant. Also, this drug frequently results in decreasing the number of foods eaten that are healthy. It’s important to remember that if you have a nutritionist in addiction treatment, they can advise you as to how much weight you can expect to gain. Being underweight is much unhealthier for your body than weighing more and being at a healthy weight.

Diet for Opioid Recovery

Foods That Help with Opiate Withdrawal

According to an article in the Iran Journal of Public Health, good nutrition and physical activity can help support a more effective opiate withdrawal.7 One of the key nutrients many nutritionists in addiction treatment recommend is Vitamin D. Vitamin D has been shown to slow morphine dependency. Taking in more protein is also beneficial in helping people withdraw from opiate addiction.7

In the study published in the Iran Journal of Public Health, they found people who abuse heroin are more likely to eat less than the recommended amounts of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains the food pyramid recommends.

Do Opioids Cause Weight Gains?

Some people may find they lose weight when they stop abusing opiates. While there are many potential explanations, one is that opiates can cause people to crave high-fat and high-sugar foods. These foods can lead to weight gain.7 By seeking help from a nutritionist in addiction treatment, you may be able to maintain a healthier weight as well as a healthy body overall.

Key Takeaways

Good nutrition in recovery and beyond can help improve the likelihood that you will experience a long-lasting recovery.4 A nutritionist in addiction treatment can take into account your history, overall health, and goals for recovery and help you adopt a realistic meal plan. Doing something good for yourself can enhance your confidence and overall sense of well-being. Happy (and healthy) eating!

Kelsey Gearhart

Director of Business Development

Kelsey carries multiple years of experience working in the substance abuse and mental health treatment field. Her passion for this field comes from her personally knowing recovery from addiction.

Prior to Buckeye she held titles of Recovery Coach, Operations Director, and Admissions Director. Kelsey was brought on at Buckeye Recovery as the Director of Business Development. She has a passion for ensuring every individual gets the help that they need, and does so by developing relationships with other providers.

Kelsey also oversees our women’s sober living environments – The Chadwick House for Women. She is committed to creating a safe, nurturing, and conducive environment for all women that walk through the doors of Chadwick.