Content reviewed by Christian Losch, LCSW, LCADC, CEO of Pinelands

During the beginning stages of addiction recovery, weight gain can occur due to the impact of substance use on eating habits and nutrition. Excessive weight gain may also result from becoming more focused on food as a substitute for substance use. Weight gain during recovery is often a sign of progress. To ensure healthy weight gain, individuals should avoid using food as a substitute for their substance use, try to consume fresh fruit and vegetables, and engage in regular exercise.

When an individual begins recovery from substance use, their body and mind experience a variety of changes. These mental and physical changes can be uncomfortable. Many people are not prepared for these changes to occur, which can leave them feeling vulnerable and insecure. That said, preparing for some of these changes can be a proactive means to jumpstart one’s overall healing and recovery process.

One of the unexpected changes that can occur during the early stages of recovery from addiction is weight gain. This can be a normal and often healthy part of recovery. However, it can also be startling and problematic. Understanding why excessive weight gain can occur during early recovery can help individuals prepare and be aware of when to get concerned.

Substance use affects nutrition, and nutrition impacts weight.

The use of alcohol and other drugs can lead to a plethora of mental and physical health consequences. It is hardly surprising that substance use directly affects a person’s nutritional status. Further, substance use alters mechanisms of satiety and food intake by facilitating poor food intake, decreased nutrient absorption and dysregulation of hormones.

How does substance use do this? In general, individuals who struggle with substance use disorder (SUD) live chaotic or otherwise disrupted lifestyles. As a result, the money that they would typically spend on food is spent on their addiction. This can lead to decreased food intake and malnutrition.

Other factors that can disrupt an individual’s nutrition while they are using substances include the type, frequency and duration of the substance(s) being used. All in all, substance use compromises an individual’s nutrition by affecting their diet, which, in turn, affects their weight.

Excessive weight gain can occur during early addiction treatment and recovery.

Since chronic substance use can compromise an individual’s nutritional habits, treatment programs prioritize helping individuals reestablish healthy nutritional habits in their life. Often, people experience excessive weight gain as a response. Why might this occur?

In an article titled “Explaining Excessive Weight Gain During Early Recovery from Addiction” from the journal Substance use & misuse, several explanations are given as to why excessive weight gain can occur in early recovery. First, the article points out that substance use is inevitably an addictive behavior. In an attempt to curb substance use, many people replace the substance with another addictive behavior. Certain foods and beverages can produce pleasurable neurobiological effects, similar to the effects produced by substance use. As a result, individuals may transfer their addictions to food.

The article also modestly affirms one hypothesis, known as the Propensity for Behavioral Addiction Hypothesis. This hypothesis explains that certain individuals may be more likely to engage in compulsive, reward-seeking behaviors. Such behaviors can include substance use and impulsive food intake. Individuals who are susceptible to compulsive reward-seeking may engage in non-nutritional eating patterns as a form of behavioral addiction. Therefore, someone who is more prone to engage in compulsive behaviors — like someone in recovery from substance use — may be more likely to engage in non-nutritional eating habits. During recovery, once the suppression of this addictive behavior is removed, excessive weight can occur as a result.

Gaining weight in recovery is often healthy and normal.

Certain circumstances can make one concerned about their body image during recovery. Fortunately, it can help to understand that weight gain is often a healthy and normal part of the recovery process. After all, years of substance use can do a number on one’s body. Weight gain, for one thing, can be an indicator of health, healing and recovery after years of neglect.

It is important to keep in mind that recovery can bring about heightened emotions. Those who may have used substances to self-medicate no longer have a temporary escape from their mental distress. Heightened emotions can lead to negative emotions toward one’s body image, especially weight. Self-compassion and kindness are important during early treatment, but also well into long-term recovery.

Recovery is an opportunity to start fresh. Individuals in recovery can do a variety of things to ensure that their weight gain is healthy and normal. Here are a few things individuals should keep in mind:

Avoid using food to replace substance-using behavior.

As mentioned previously, some people turn to food to self-medicate as a way of replacing substance-using behaviors. Sugary foods can activate the reward center in the brain and stimulate feelings of pleasure.

Incorporate fresh fruits and vegetables into your daily diet.

Eating fruits and vegetables daily can foster mental and physical strength.

Consider taking daily supplements.

Vitamins and other supplements can help restore balance in the body.

Get exercise.

Engaging in exercise on a daily basis is essential to avoid unhealthy weight gain. Additionally, daily exercise can reduce stress levels and improve sleep, which are both vital for lasting recovery.

Pinelands Recovery Center of Medford is a premier drug and alcohol treatment center that recognizes weight gain as a common part of the process of recovery from substance use. Still, we understand that weight gain may or may not be healthy. To learn more about our treatment options and programs, give us a call today at (877) 557-5372.