"Why do people sometimes gain weight upon going sober?"
Drug misuse causes chemical imbalances in the brain, and it takes time for the brain to return to its normal functioning once drug use stops. As a result, former drug users often experience an increase in appetite upon quitting.
Years spent in addiction robs and deprives addicts of the life skills necessary to eat, live, and work in a manner conducive to physical and psychological health. When most of their energy is applied to finding and consuming drugs or alcohol, users often disregard the importance of learning how to plan and prepare healthy meals, exercise, and excel in a structured work environment in favor of the “easier way” – fast food, video games, and maybe even working outside the law in order to make some easy money.
Concerning weight gain, this is fairly intuitive. Taking in a Big Mac with French fries and Coke while trying to make it through the day at your office job and operating on little or no sleep, instead of preparing a grilled chicken salad at home after a run and a good night’s sleep, will contribute to weight gain, ill health, overeating, and eventually impaired biological function.
Over 65% of people recovering from addiction to drugs and alcohol have found themselves becoming overweight during or after rehab and many more struggle with compulsive overeating or what is now being called “food addiction.” Weight gain during recovery can be a significant source of personal suffering leading to relapse. It can also contribute to health consequences such as diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure later in life.
When addicts enter sobriety the body will begin to repair itself, which may require large amounts of certain nutrients such as healthy fats, protein, and essential vitamins and minerals that are usually absent in highly processed convenience foods that addicts tend to lean towards.
If you are in recovery from drugs or alcohol, you may have a reduction of dopamine receptors in the reward center of the brain that leads to a lack of impulse control and trouble with emotional regulation. These brain changes don’t instantly improve when you stop using. In the absence of drugs for this reward mechanism, food becomes the next best thing.
Sugar, Stress and Caffeine
It’s not just the fact that 12-step meetings sometimes offer foods high in sugar and caffeine that leads to overeating. You may have noticed that you tend to crave specific foods high in sugar, fat or salt since you stopped using. These changes in taste preferences are supported by research and of course, have an ugly downside of weight gain.
Although sweets/sugar may ease some recovering addicts drug cravings, many end up “transfer addicting” from their substance of choice to sugar.
Drug addiction and overeating have similar effects on the brain. Repeated use of drugs or repeated consumption of what are called “highly palatable” foods (processed with added sugars, salt and fat) activate the brain’s reward center, stimulating the release of natural opioids and triggering the release of dopamine – which makes us feel good. This behavior may represent a “replacement” of food for the drug or addiction of choice. Substituting food for drugs or alcohol over time may lead to compulsive overeating and is very likely the cause of the recovering persons weight gain.
Stress can also play a huge role. Just as stress is known to be a significant risk factor for relapse from drug or alcohol addiction, research has repeatedly shown stress to be a risk factor for overeating. For vulnerable individuals (with genetic risks for obesity), stress can also lead to compulsive overeating and excessive weight gain.
Nutritional Knowledge and Recovery
Despite recent research about the importance of nutrition as part of recovery, it is still uncommon for treatment facilities to offer nutrition or lifestyle education. Although there is little research on this topic, Cowan and Devine (2012) were able to show that nutrition education and changes in diet offered to men in residential treatment programs improved eating habits and reduced weight gain during recovery.
While it is important to put your recovery from drugs or alcohol first, there are steps you can take to improve your overall health and well-being. Although weight gain may happen in the early days of sobriety, recovering alcoholics and addicts are not doomed to a heavier existence and there are many ways in which food, fitness & a program of action can promote total health and well-being.
In order to find a normal weight and health, recovering addicts must first identify the source of their weight gain so that they can take the proper actions in overcoming detrimental eating behaviors.