How I Harnessed the Power of Food to Enhance My Recovery

by Olivia Pennelle |

When I was in early recovery, I was 150 pounds overweight. I’ve told my story about 100 times, but I never fail in my passion to tell the world that early recovery doesn’t need to be about feeling miserable, exhausted, and out of control with food.

Over the past five years, I have learned how to harness the power of food and exercise not only to enhance my recovery, but also to revolutionize my life enough to deal with my eating disorders. This has led to a 60-pound weight loss and an unrecognizable approach to my life.

What annoys me about early recovery messaging is that we’re told that it has to be tough, that we’ll put on weight, and that we’ll feel terrible. Sure, a recovering body is going to hurt—as will dealing with the mental aspect of addiction and the stark reality of a life without anesthesia—but it needn’t be that painful.

I’d argue that we have the power to speed up the healing process and provide our bodies with the much needed fuel we need for recovery—which is demanding!

Meeting attendance, step work, therapy, returning to work, medical appointments, rehab, and treatment all require a significant amount of energy and motivation. Balancing our new recovery commitments and life commitments—a home, work, and family—is an immense amount of work. Especially when all we did before was service our addiction.

Why would you make recovery more difficult for yourself if you didn’t need to?

I am not suggesting that anyone would choose to make recovery more difficult (given that we have chosen to stop causing ourselves and those around us harm with drugs), but what if we were causing this harm and not realizing it? We might even be aware that we’re eating junk food and shrug it off as less harmful than drugs.

We are eating mindlessly, escaping with food, unaware of the impact it is having on our bodies and our ability to successfully carry out our new lives in recovery. Eating in that way can actually hinder us. We do this despite knowing of the benefits of eating well; it reduces our risk of heart disease, lowers cholesterol, improves immunity, keeps away infections, and lowers our weight. It is common sense. Eat well; feel good.

A Selection Of Healthy Foods That Can Be Chosen To Improve Recovery

A real challenge of the movement towards holistic recovery is that traditional modalities (AA/NA etc) only deal with the mental aspect of recovery. The problem with treating one part of the body (i.e. the thought processes around addiction) isn’t sufficient. Here’s why; the addicted brain is already depleted in dopamine (a feel good hormone), which is why we keep seeking it in drugs and alcohol. When you get sober, your already depleted brain seeks the dopamine it used to get from drugs elsewhere: food, caffeine, energy drinks, and et cetera. This is why we can’t stop eating certain foods, to get exactly the same effects as drugs.

In the last few years that I’ve written about this subject, nearly everyone I have spoken to has talked about some evolution in their relationship with food and their body in a positive way. What I am alluding to is that when we were misusing substances, we didn’t care about our bodies. By getting sober, we’re choosing to care enough about ourselves to stop self-harming with drugs and alcohol. As an extension of that positive step, we start to care about our physical being too. It becomes difficult to ignore that eating junk food doesn’t align with the newfound love we have for ourselves.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that you detox and immediately start eating four square meals a day. I’m suggesting that you try and look after yourself as a whole in order to recover. What that means is slowly learning how to incorporate living well into your program of recovery.

My experience has been that by treating the whole body you’re more likely to treat the addiction sustainably, because it is not limited to your thought processes; it permeates your entire physical being.

I learned how to improve my recovery through the power of food in the following ways:

  1. I asked for help. I hired a health coach that would allow me to pay her small amounts monthly (addiction caused a huge amount of debt). She helped me for an hour a month, and we dealt with my whole being.
  2. I began eating mindfully. That means not in front of the TV, enjoying each bite, and choosing my meals wisely.
  3. I stopped eating junk food, and instead ate meals that were full of nutrients. That means fruits and vegetables, wholegrain bread and pasta, and protein – with every meal.
  4. I started where I was at. I already had a lot of knowledge about healthy eating, I just didn’t know how to apply it in a way that worked for me. I started eating one or two healthy meals a day. I made changes slowly and incrementally, which felt manageable.
  5. I started finding ways to enjoy my life outside of recovery. I had to make my life bigger than food. At that point, all I did was recovery and work. Life was dull. I started being creative: writing, drawing, making jewelry, experimenting with new recipes. I went to the cinema and to events that interested me. Before I knew it, my day became about what I was doing, rather than what I was eating.
  6. I made exercise work for me and found ways to enjoy it so it was less of a chore. I discovered I love cycling and lifting heavy weights.

Slowly but surely, over the last two years, I have lost 60 pounds and I feel full of energy, am less sick and depressed, and live my life more. It hasn’t been an easy road (recovery isn’t), but it has absolutely been worth it. If I knew what I now know, I wouldn’t have suffered so much in my early recovery.

Photo of Olivia Pennelle

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