Boston Medical Center (BMC) is one of the nation’s leading addiction treatment facilities
What’s often not addressed in treatment programs is the fact that for many in treatment and recovery, nutrition and taking good care of their bodies has been last on the list of priorities up until now. Getting a healthy life back requires nourishing the body with healthy food, and often times, fast food—and especially sugary food—can replace the original addiction. People with addiction also face obstacles to finding access to healthy eating.
Tracey Burg, registered dietitian and chef at the hospital, has for years developed and taught classes for many different ailments. But until three months ago, there was no class for those recovering from addiction.
“At BMC we have a longstanding program, Nourishing Our Community, and it’s comprised of a teaching kitchen and a food pantry,” Burg says. The classes are taught in a demo kitchen, and Burg teaches about 25 or 30 classes a month, free to patients, staff, visitors, caregivers and the community. “We have cooking class for diabetes, heart disease, renal patients, cancer patients…a whole variety, including culinary training and how to make food on a budget and cooking for people with disabilities.”
When Burg met last fall with the director for the hospital’s substance disorder department, “it sparked an idea in me,” she says, “We have all these classes and we don’t have one for substance-use disorder.”
The office-based addiction treatment program for people in recovery had been in place for years at the hospital, but didn’t focus on nutrition.
That’s a problem, Burg says.
“If they’ve spent years doing drugs, they haven’t been taking care of their bodies and their bodies are depleted,” Burg says. “Food can restore the body to where it once was and it can be a big help in the recovery process.”
Good nutrition as a form of self-care is something very new to many in recovery, Burg explains, and the brain’s pleasure-seeking centers often try to replace drugs with foods that offer similar “highs and lows.”
“People who have been addicted to opiates crave sugar—that sugar rush; they’re not taking drugs anymore but the sugar hits the same receptors as hard drugs,” Burg says. “This is what helps them relax. One woman we worked with was having three bags of cotton candy every day and nothing else. She said it helped her get to sleep.”
The poor nutrition and overall quality of life shows, even after the drugs have stopped, Burg says.
“When you see them, they are tense and some are itchy and they can have rashes and having a healthy diet can help that heal too,” Burg says. “And their guts are a wreck. Whole grains can help with that.”
So where does one start when addressing such a big problem, one that’s so closely linked to ingrained habits and lifestyle that doesn’t allow much access to healthful meals?
“I start with a one-pot meal,” Burg says. “An easy one is just ground turkey, sauté that with a little garlic or garlic powder in a healthy oil like olive or canola, then get a big bulb of broccoli, chop it into florets and chuck it in there with some premade rice. Just simple meals like that, and with that you can swap out any meat or whole grain—and I try to get them thinking in terms of making a big batch of something, right when you get home you know you have something healthy to eat.”
Whole grains are also a pillar in the cooking for recovery classes. “I teach what a whole grain is and how to read labels,” Burg says. “Get brown rice, not white rice.”
Next, Burg says, “we are trying to break them free of the sweet craving. It sounds simple, but we switch over to fruit.”
For example, she’s shown her class how to put together Greek yogurt with pineapple, toasted almonds and lime zest for a healthy snack that “gives them something (protein) and it takes longer to digest while still reducing the sugar craving.”
The class provides a handout brochure to reinforce what’s being taught, and there’s also a demonstration of mood-enhancing foods (whole grains, lean protein) and mood-depressing foods (donuts, french fries).
“Mood and food is the idea, and it’s something simple for them to put in their backpack and refer to, even if we only get them for one class,” Burg says. “The main message is that food can help them heal.”