Good nutrition is an important part of the recovery process.
A balanced diet helps stabilize your mood, control your cravings, and boost energy levels. If you’re in recovery for alcohol addiction, you should work closely with a nutritionist to create a meal plan that addresses your specific nutritional deficiencies.
How Alcohol Leads to Nutritional Deficiencies
Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram, which creates a feeling of fullness in the body. This can reduce a person’s desire to eat balanced meals.
In addition, alcohol is treated as a toxic substance by the body. When a person consumes alcohol, the body uses its stored nutrients to process and remove the substance as soon as possible. If there are not enough of the necessary nutrients in the liver, they are pulled from the bloodstream and other areas of the body.
Individuals who consume 30 percent or more of their daily calories from alcohol have the highest risk of nutritional deficiencies. However, even regular drinkers who do not meet the definition of an alcoholic frequently have mild to moderate deficiencies linked to their alcohol consumption.
A thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency is rare in developed countries, but common in alcoholics. This can lead to a brain disease known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome (WKS), which is characterized by memory loss, muscle weakness, impaired coordination, and abnormal eye movement.
Beef, beans, nuts, rice, milk, and yogurt are all considered good sources of thiamine. Whole grain breads, cereals, and pastas are also fortified with this vitamin.
Vitamin A Deficiency
Vitamin A deficiency in alcoholics has been linked to fatty liver, a stage of alcoholic liver disease. If this condition is allowed to progress, the affected person can develop cirrhosis and require a liver transplant for continued survival.
Fruits and vegetables that are rich in vitamin A include sweet potatoes, carrots, butternut squash, spinach, pumpkins, tomatoes, apricots, and grapefruit. Egg yolks, butter, and cheese are also good source of vitamin A.
Vitamin C Deficiency
Alcohol impairs the absorption of vitamin C and speeds its excretion through urine. A vitamin C deficiency can result in problems with wound healing and the body’s immune system.
Citrus fruits are excellent sources of vitamin C. You can also increase your vitamin C intake by consuming tomatoes, red and green peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and spinach.
Iron deficiency, often referred to as anemia, can lead to fatigue, impaired thinking, and trouble maintaining a consistent body temperature. Alcohol abuse is linked to iron deficiency because of its negative effects on the blood, spleen, liver, and bone marrow. This damage to hematologic system can reduce the red blood cell count in the body—which eventually leads to a diagnosis of anemia.
Red meat and shellfish are known for their high levels of iron. However, tofu, chickpeas, cashews, pumpkin seeds, almonds, and peanuts also contain this important mineral.
Heavy drinking can cause a calcium deficiency by increasing urinary calcium excretion. This can lead to osteoporosis, a weakening of the bones that can lead to increased fractures as a person ages.
Dairy products are well known for being rich in calcium. However, tofu, soybeans, kale, spinach, chickpeas, black eyed peas, and almonds can also provide sources of dietary calcium.
Guidelines for a Healthy Diet
If you’re worried about nutritional deficiencies caused by alcohol abuse, keep in mind that you don’t need to monitor every single bite of food you consume. A good rule of thumb for a balanced diet is to “eat the rainbow.” This means that different colors of fruits and vegetables offer different combinations of vitamins and minerals. If you’re eating foods from different color groups each day along with sources of protein and whole grains, your diet will often balance itself to provide the nutrition you need.
The Choose MyPlate website created by the United States Department of Agriculture has information on eating a balanced diet that you might also find helpful. The plate guideline described on this site replaces the food pyramid you may have learned about when you were in elementary school.
A Word About Supplements
Although it may seem like supplements would be a good way to correct the nutritional deficiencies associated with prolonged alcohol abuse, it is best to get the vitamins and minerals your body needs through a balanced diet. Supplements are not necessary unless you have food allergies or medical conditions that make it impossible to incorporate a wide variety of foods into your diet.
Supplements are not absorbed as effectively as the nutrients in whole foods. They can potentially cause interactions with other medications you are taking. If you are still drinking, there is also the risk that alcohol can cause harmful side effects. For example, supplements with high doses of vitamin A can be toxic if mixed with alcohol.
If you think you might benefit from using supplements as part of your recovery, discuss this issue with your care team to develop a plan that’s best suited for your unique needs.