By: Tom Shanahan, Personal Trainer and Sports Nutritionist
The foods you chose to eat, or not eat, during the holidays can either enhance or undercut your efforts to stay sober and in recovery.
In my book, Spiritual Adrenaline: A Lifestyle Plan to Nourish and Strengthen Your Recovery, being published in January 2019 by Central Recovery Press (CRP), I go into great detail on how your nutritional and lifestyle choices are interrelated with your sobriety.
If you are reading this holiday guide, CRP and I thank you! We’re really excited for you to join the Spiritual Adrenaline community, home to the quickly growing active sober movement.
This holiday guide will serve as a primer to help you stay in recovery feeling healthy and happy as you welcome 2019.
Holidays can be challenging. Some even refer to the holidays as “hurricane season” for those with addiction.
When you think about it, this name makes sense given that celebration of the holidays is interrelated with three frequent causes of relapse: family, being around alcohol and other drugs, and binge eating.
Some manage to stay sober by whatever means necessary, although the effort can often leave them exhausted. Others may relapse, learn from the experience, and come back to restart their day count. Unfortunately, others stay out and their ultimate fate is often unknown.
Think about it: Thanksgiving at the end of November, the “holidays” all throughout December, and the build-up to New Year’s Eve. All of it pushes you beyond the normal pressures of life as a person in recovery. It’s akin to hurricane-force winds that can blow you off course, wearing down your resolve. At the same time, your work, personal, and recovery-related commitments don’t disappear. You are still expected to show up and address all the work that needs to be done in your professional life. After that, you are expected to be at holiday-related social events where people are often drinking large amounts of alcohol and not just eating, but binge eating foods and sweets associated with the holiday.
That’s a lot for anyone and can be overwhelming if you are new to recovery or struggling in sobriety.
The Perpetually Sick vs. Disciplined and Healthy Models of Recovery
There’s certainly a lot of advice available out there about how to handle the pressure of the holiday season. Much of it is not consistent with the Spiritual Adrenaline approach. For example, one piece of advice that has always bothered me is the recommendation to tell people who may inquire why you are not drinking that you are on “antibiotics.” In the Spiritual Adrenaline world, this is a no-no. We do not believe in the “perpetually sick” model of recovery. Rather than telling people you are sick or ill, Spiritual Adrenaline recommends you tell people you are “training” for a 5k, a bike race, or trying to meet a fitness goal. This way, rather than reinforcing an image of you as perpetually sick and/or weak, you present yourself as disciplined and healthy.
Here’s some general advice from the disciplined and healthy approach advocated by Spiritual Adrenaline.
Take what works for you and leave the rest.
The holidays are stressful! When your body is under stress, it burns many more calories. Stress puts your brain into overdrive. As a result, you need to take in more calories to compensate for the stress and increased brain activity. Realizing the impact of stress on your body and mind empowers you to prepare yourself by “stress eating”; however, not in a way that will undercut you, your recovery, and your health. I am referring to stress eating in a positive way by anticipating being around triggers and high-stress situations and eating ahead of time to maximize your natural defenses and maintain good judgment.
Positive stress eating involves incorporating more complex carbs into your diet beginning at least eight hours before attending a stressful event or function. In addition, lean protein sources, antioxidants, and healthy fats help to supercharge brain-function and your immune system. This permits you to handle stressors optimally.
If you are attending something stressful in the morning, you should eat the appropriate foods the night before and have a healthy breakfast and snacks early that day. Here is my short-list of recommended complex carbs as your “go to” food when under stress:
➢ Steel cut oats
➢ Whole grain pasta
➢ Sweet potato fries and wedges
➢ Brown rice
➢ Whole wheat bread
Work in an orange, kiwi, and grapefruit over the course of your day. Studies confirm vitamin C can help reduce cortisol production (also known as the stress hormone). Additionally, vitamin C strengthens your immune system.
Spinach and other leafy greens are high in magnesium. Magnesium deficiency can lead to headaches and fatigue, which are compounded with stress. If you do not like spinach, give kale, collard greens, or brussels sprouts a try.
It’s important to eat regularly throughout the day consistent with your normal practice. However, if you are going to a holiday party or other stress-filled function, you want to do some positive stress eating before. This means never going more than three hours without a healthy meal or snack. This way, your stomach will always have something in it, you’ll help to stabilize your blood sugar and keep your body and brain primed with the macronutrients necessary to not only handle the anticipated stress, but get through it like a rock star. An additional benefit is if you are not hungry, you’ll be much less likely to grab at foods that aren’t good for you and, if you are grabbing for foods with refined sugars and caffeine, will make your stress and anxiety worse.
In addition, I recommend you eat about one hour prior to your arrival at the party or event. It’s best to eat some of the complex carbs I identified earlier and add in some lean protein sources. The lean protein will provide your body and brain with additional energy and help stabilize blood sugar, especially when consumed along with complex carbs.
Here is my short list of recommended lean proteins to have with your “go to” complex carbs about an hour or so ahead of attending a stressful event or function:
➢ Grass-fed beef burger
➢ 90 percent lean turkey burger
➢ Beans and lentils
➢ Nuts, including almonds, pistachios, and cashews
➢ Almond or all-natural peanut butter
I still recommend you eat ahead about one hour before your arrival. Also, make sure to review the menu online before going. This way, you can choose what you will eat based on what is healthy, consistent with your goals, and will enhance your recovery. If you go hungry, the chances are greater that you’ll tell yourself “fuck it” and then choose an endorphin-releasing comfort food or some other sugary food and regret it later. These types of foods will give you an instant rush, then crash your blood sugar and make stress and anxiety worse.
Is it possible to think about food in the context of service? Sure it is.
If you’re like me, a home-body who really tries to avoid going out late at night, why not prepare a healthy holiday meal for others in the program who are less fortunate and invite them over? That is service! If you cannot have people over or cannot host for some reason, how about bringing the food to a meeting for whoever is hungry and hasn’t eaten? What a rewarding way to not only to help yourself, but others. Simple holiday meals that can be prepared easily include cooking a turkey, chicken breast, any fish dish along with some green veggies, and a whole wheat or multi-grain pasta or brown rice.