We Are What We Eat: How Diet Can Help in Long-Term Recovery

By Dominic Nicosia – November 29, 2021

We see examples of the “food-mood connection” all the time. Whether it’s going crazy and then crashing hard after eating too much sugar; bouts of lethargy or depression after consuming too many artificial sweeteners; getting anxious or irritable after too much or too little coffee or anything else, it’s been proven both scientifically and anecdotally that what we eat impacts how we think and how we behave. 

Throughout the years, these connections have been accepted, codified and, often cartoonishly depicted: the “Not without My Coffee” mug, promise of emotional bliss from chocolate, “comfort food culture,” etc. For those in recovery, however, what goes into the body can help or hurt some of the brain’s functions that are directly associated with relapse triggers. Let’s talk a little bit about relationship between food, mood and recovery. 

What Foods Should I Eat in Recovery?

Perhaps the best way to illustrate food’s impact on mood is explaining how specific helpful or harmful foods can dictate behavior. If you’re in recovery, here are some foods that you may want to eat more of: 

  • You Say “Tomato” – … we say “lycopene”, which helps with memory, attention, logic and concentration. Eating those delicious red spheres can help you make better and more informed decisions and stay engaged. 
  • What’s Up, Doc? – Your mood! Carrots have been linked to decreased rates and symptoms of depression, which can be a common relapse trigger. 
  • Get Dark and Leafy – Leafy greens, like kale, spinach and chard can help increase mental acuity and sharpness in your everyday life. 
  • Go Bananas – It’s hard to imagine why the term “bananas” has become synonymous with “crazy”. They can actually be quite good for your brain, including improving sleep through the deployment of tryptophan. 

Other foods that are good for your brain include lettuce, apples, cucumbers and citrus fruits. 

What Foods Should I Not Eat in Recovery?

Now let’s talk about some of the scarier selections. It’s more a question of what foods to not eat too much of. Some of the foods you’re going to want to take it easy on or outright eliminate include, but are not limited to: 

  • Excessive Sugar – Whether it’s sugary drinks, candy, desserts or any of the other confections that we often hold so dear, these foods create large surges in dopamine that can actually mirror the neurological effects of heroin and opioid abuse. 
  • Refined Carbohydrates – Refined carbs that are high on the glycemic index are often linked to memory loss and serious long-term cognitive decline; they can also be responsible for extreme changes in mood.
  • Trans Fats – There’s a price to be paid when you open that wrapper. Trans fats have been linked to higher rates of excessive changes in mood, memory loss and depression.

You should also avoid artificial sweeteners, like aspartame and sucralose as they can affect mood, focus and overall brain health. Avoid eating processed foods, stick to regular mealtimes, stop eating three hours before bedtime, ditch the caffeine and up the fiber. 

We often think about the food we eat as a means of staying physically fit, but the reality is that food affects brain health, as well. For someone in recovery, every moment and every opportunity to improve and protect mental health should be embraced, this includes breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack. So to slightly modify a classic phrase, Brain Appetit!

About the Author

Dominic Nicosia smiling at the camera.

Dominic Nicosia is a New Jersey-based journalist and content writer covering addiction care and mental health. He currently serves as Senior Content Writer for Recovery Unplugged Treatment Centers, a national addiction treatment organization that offers a full continuum of care and uses music to help people more readily embrace the treatment process.


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