What Foods to Eat During a Drug or Alcohol Detox
Up to Date
Last Updated - 12/29/2022View our editorial policy
- A healthy diet is important for both mental and physical health during detox
- Abuse of different substances is linked to different nutritional problems
- Keeping to a regular eating schedule can help to reduce cravings for both food and substances as you detox
- A medical detox or rehab center will be able to help you meet your nutritional needs as you heal from substance abuse
Learn how to have a balanced and nutritious diet during detox to maximize your health, including, what foods to eat and how to deal with cravings.
A healthy diet is important for supporting your mental health as well as your physical wellbeing. Further, detox and rehab can be challenging and making sure that both your body and mind are supported with a healthy diet is key to your healing. A person struggling with a substance will often not focus on the healthfulness of their diet, leading to nutritional problems before detox and recovery even begin. For these reasons, knowing about the components of a healthful diet and common nutritional problems in substance abuse can be useful in helping you achieve your rehab goals of a healthier life.
Why What You Eat Matters During Detox
Studies have shown that you are more likely to successfully recover from substance abuse if you not only have proper nutrition, but proper education about nutrition so you can continue to make healthy choices.
Without proper nutrition, the detox process can take longer and be harder than with proper nutrition. For example, drug addiction can cause a person to confuse hunger for a drug craving. For this reason, without proper nutrition, a person might be tempted back into substance use. In addition, the detox process itself can impact your body’s nutritional requirements, requiring more nutrients.
Common Nutritional Problems from Drug & Alcohol Use
Those who struggle with substances are often predisposed to nutritional deficiencies. This is because substance abuse can interfere with your appetite, taste buds, and even the absorption of nutrients from the food you eat. Some substances are more likely to cause certain nutritional problems than others. Common problems, and the substances that are most likely to cause them, include:
- Low calcium – This is a common deficiency when you struggle with opioids, alcohol or cocaine. A calcium deficiency can be detected with lab work. Long-term calcium deficiency can impact bone health, which can also show up on bone scans.
- Low magnesium – This deficiency is common if you have struggled with drinking and can show up on lab work. Low magnesium levels can cause muscle cramping.
- Low vitamin D – This deficiency is common with cocaine and can show up on lab work. Over the long-term, low vitamin D can impact bone health.
- Low vitamin A – This deficiency can occur with alcohol use and can be found in lab work. Vitamin A is often stored in the liver and alcohol can interfere with this. Vitamin A helps to support eye health.
- Low vitamin E – This deficiency happens with drinking and can be found in lab work. Vitamin E is important because it helps to protect tissues in the body from damage.
- Protein deficiency – This deficiency can occur with heavy drinking. Protein is one of the major nutritional categories and is the building block of your body’s muscles.
- Fat deficiency – This deficiency can happen with heavy drinking. Fats play many roles in the body, including helping with hormone production.
- Low zinc – This deficiency can occur from drinking and can show up in lab work. Copper intake can interfere with zinc levels and copper is often high if you struggle with drinking. Zinc is important for the function of your immune system.
- Low iron – This deficiency can occur with drinking and can be identified in lab work. Iron is important for helping your red blood cells transport oxygen throughout the body.
- Low pyridoxine – The deficiency of this vitamin, also known as vitamin B6, can occur with drinking and can be identified in lab work. Pyridoxine is important for producing red blood cells which carry oxygen.
- Low thiamine – The deficiency of this vitamin, also known as vitamin B1, can happen due to drinking and can be identified on lab work. Low thiamine can cause a severe condition in those who struggle with drinking called Wernicke encephalopathy or Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, which can cause confusion and difficulty walking.
- Low folate – A deficiency of this B-vitamin can occur with drinking and can be identified on lab work. Folate is important for many roles in the body, including the production of red blood cells.
- Low vitamin B12 – This deficiency can occur with drinking and can be identified on lab work. Vitamin B12 plays many roles in the body and is essential for the proper function of nerves.
- High cholesterol – This is a common problem with opioid use. High cholesterol can be found in lab work and can increase your risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart attack and stroke.
- High potassium – This is a common problem with opioid use. High potassium can be found in lab work and can impact your heart health.
- Weight management concerns – Stimulant addiction may cause appetite loss leading to excessive weight loss. Conversely, using marijuana over the short term may stimulate appetite, causing a person to be overweight.
Foods to Support Recovery
Many foods are considered as staples in supporting your recovery. These include:
- Water: Hydration is important for everyone, especially since nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are dehydrating and can occur in detox. However, because alcohol is so dehydrating, maintaining adequate hydration is the first step in addressing nutrition in alcohol detox.
- Whole foods: defined as unprocessed foods that have not been modified from their original form – are important to nutrition during recovery as they are full of nutrients. Examples of whole foods include:
- Fruits: Fruits are full of vitamins, fiber, and nutrients like folate, which can be lacking in the diet if you struggle with substances.
- Vegetables: Vegetables are full of vitamins including Vitamin A and folate, which can be deficient in substance abuse.
- Proteins: Proteins include meats, poultry, fish, beans, peas, eggs, nuts and seeds. These items are rich in B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc and magnesium, all of which can be deficient in your diet and impacted by substance abuse.
- Grains: Whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, or oatmeal are rich in complex carbohydrates that your body needs for energy. They are also replete in vitamins like fiber, B vitamins, and minerals which may be lacking in your diet.
- Dairy: Dairy products are rich in calcium and vitamin D, which are often lacking in substance abuse and are crucial in maintaining bone health.
Why Sugar and Junk Food Won’t Help
Experts believe that it is important to avoid sugar, caffeine, and junk food in the diet for several reasons. First, it is important to avoid changing a substance addiction to a sugar addiction, which can interfere with the detox process and contribute to a relapse. This phenomenon is called addiction transfer, as sweet foods can stimulate similar brain processes as drugs.
Second, relying on sugary or junk foods leads to spikes in your blood sugar. These spikes have been linked to mood changes like anxiety and frustration as well as cravings, which can complicate your recovery. Further, caffeine can cause sleep disturbances and anxiety, which may already be occurring in someone trying to detox or heal from substance use.
Lastly, about half of people who struggle with substances also have an eating disorder. Addressing nutritional needs, therefore, can help both create healthy eating habits as well as foster holistic, long-term recovery.
Coping with Cravings
Cravings for both food and drugs are common when you detox from a substance. The body is adjusting to sobriety, and it can take time for it to get used to a new normal. This can lead to confusion in your body, as you may be hungry but may mistake it for a drug craving. Notably, an unbalanced diet has been linked to cravings.
Focusing on eating a balanced diet and keeping to regularly scheduled mealtimes can help reduce cravings for both food and drugs as your body adapts to sobriety. Learning what your body’s hunger cues are can help you eat on a more regular basis, reducing both food and drug cravings.
Planning Meals for Detox & Best Practices
It is important to consume regular meals during detox to ensure you have enough nutrients and calories. Sometimes this may feel unnatural: those who struggle with drinking in particular may have altered eating patterns.
Items to include on your detox grocery list include the basic building blocks of a healthy diet like:
- Meat: Protein-rich foods like chicken breast and lean beef can help to provide your body with much-needed amino acids like tryptophan, phenylalanine and tyrosine, which are important for producing neurotransmitters like serotonin that support mood.
- Dairy products: Low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt can help to provide calcium and vitamin D. However, those who struggle with drinking may have become lactose-intolerant due to enzyme changes in the body, so lactose-free products like lactose-free milk may be preferable.
- Legumes: Peas, kidney beans, pinto beans are rich in protein and vitamins. Especially if you find meat too expensive or choose not to eat meat as a source of protein, beans can be a budget-friendly alternative.
- Whole grain breads and cereals: Whole-grain breads are high in fiber, to help avoid constipation. They are also chock full of complex carbohydrates that your body needs for energy.
- Fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables contain nutrients, like vitamins and minerals that are crucial to recovery. Whether fresh, frozen or canned, ensure that you have a variety of types and colors to get adequate nutrients.
- Decaffeinated beverages like water to keep you well-hydrated: It is important to avoid caffeine as it can interfere with the detox process.
If going to the store isn’t an option, online meal services can also be useful. Many of these plans let you customize a menu to your preferences and will deliver it to your door along with step-by-step cooking instructions. This saves a trip to the grocery store and plans a detailed menu for you to follow. These plans range in cost and usually offer meal plans for either two or four.
If online meal services are too pricey or you prefer to do the shopping yourself, you can still use free online menu planning services. The U.S. government operates the MyPlate Kitchen site, which has free healthy recipes, cookbooks, and how-to videos. MyPlate Kitchen also has a free online cookbook about healthy eating on a budget.
In early recovery, you’re likely working to include other healthful behaviors back into your life, like exercise and trying to get enough sleep. A healthy and nutritious diet will also support these behaviors and set you up for success.
Do You Need Supplements?
When a dietitian is helping you detox, there will often be labs drawn to help pinpoint any nutritional deficiencies that you have. Many deficiencies, like Vitamin D and iron, can show up in blood tests, helping your dietitian and doctor pinpoint the nutritional areas where you need the most support. Although it is possible to take supplements without a nutritional evaluation, it will be hard to predict where you need the most nutritional support without this information. It is possible to accidentally take too much of nutrients you do not need while taking too few nutrients that your body requires, compounding your nutritional problems.
Further, some supplements may have drug interactions with other medications that you are taking, possibly reducing their effectiveness. For this reason, it is best to seek the advice of a dietitian or doctor before starting on any supplements. That said, experts believe that a multivitamin may be useful, especially if it contains B-complex vitamins, vitamins A and C, and the mineral zinc.
Warning: Attempting to self-medicate with substances without medical supervision can be dangerous, worsening nutritional problems and carrying the risk of drug interactions. Always consult your doctor or a medical professional before taking any kind of supplement.
Related Topic: Alcohol detox supplements
Sample Meal Plan
It can be helpful to have a model on which you can base your diet, which should generally contain three meals and two snacks. A sample meal plan, full of nutritious food and vitamins to assist you in making good choices during recovery can be useful. If you are planning on undergoing detox or rehab in a facility, it is important to ask for a copy of their meal plan so you can review their food choices and make sure they are adequately focused on nutrition.
Breakfast ideas include a smoothie with protein powder, unsweetened yogurt, oats, banana, blueberries, and unsweetened almond milk
A healthy lunch idea is tuna or chicken salad on a bed of spinach or another dark green leafy vegetable.
A nutritious dinner choice is salmon, with a side of a vegetable like brussels sprouts, quinoa or another whole grain, and greens with healthy fats from pecans and goat cheese.
Some healthy snack ideas include a slice of whole grain braid with sugar-free peanut butter and honey, or a handful of nuts or sunflower seeds
How to Know When It’s Time to Get Professional Help
It can be overwhelming to try to detox from a substance without help. Managing withdrawal symptoms and cravings on your own can be hard enough without adding on to your stress by having to learn new skills about nutrition and cooking healthful foods. A medical detox center, where you safely detox from a substance while under round-the-clock medical supervision, can be helpful in managing your withdrawal symptoms while taking care of your nutrition. In a rehab center, you can learn skills while being guided by nutrition and other medical experts.
Are you or a loved one struggling with addiction?
Our Recovery Advocates are available 24/7 to help.
The Recovery Village at Baptist Health has a full-service detox facility to help you safely and comfortably detox while taking care of your nutritional needs. Our expert dietitians can work with you both in detox and in our rehab program to meet your dietary needs and help you make a full recovery. Contact us today to learn more.
Salz, Alyssa. “Substance Abuse and Nutrition.” Today’s Dietitian, December 2014. Accessed October 18, 2020.
Grant, Louise P.; Haughton, Betsy; Sachan, Dileep S. “Nutrition education is positively associated with substance abuse treatment program outcomes.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, April 2004. Accessed October 27, 2020.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment: A treatment improvement protocol.” 2015. Accessed October 27, 2020.
Jeynes, Kendall D.; Gibson, E. Leigh. “The importance of nutrition in aiding recovery from substance use disorders: a review.” October 2017. Accessed October 27, 2020.
National Institutes of Health. “Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome Information Page.” March 27, 2019. Accessed August 20, 2021.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Substance Use Recovery and Diet.” March 26, 2018. Accessed October 27, 2020.