There are many important skills to learn when recovering from a substance use disorder. Many of these are directly related to getting sober and staying sober. These include skills like distress tolerance, emotional regulation, setting boundaries, clear communication, and behavioral strategies. There are also life skills that are more peripheral to recovery but equally important for staying sober long-term. These include skills like finding a safe place to live, finding a job, managing your finances, managing stress, and so on. Cooking is a life skill and a recovery skill that gives you a lot of bang for your buck. Here’s why.
Addiction can take a serious toll on your health. For example, excessive drinking can damage your gastrointestinal tract, making it hard for your body to absorb nutrients, which can lead to malnutrition. It also damages your cardiovascular system, leading to a greater risk of heart disease and stroke. Drinking also increases your risk of liver disease and several kinds of cancer including mouth, esophageal, stomach, liver, breast, and colon cancers. Many substances, including alcohol, can weaken your immune system, increase your risk of other unhealthy habits, and damage your overall health. In short, if you’re just starting to recover from addiction, your health may be precarious.
One of the best things you can do for your health—after you stop using drugs and alcohol—is to start eating healthier. That means eating more nutritious whole foods and less processed junk. A number of studies have found that people tend to eat healthier when they cook more of their own meals at home. For example, one study of more than 11,000 people found that people who ate more home-cooked meals ate significantly more fruits and vegetables and had healthier body-mass indexes and lower body fat percentages. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5561571/] This improves your cardiovascular health, and reduces your risk of other problems like diabetes and cancer. When you cook your own meals, you are more likely to eat whole foods. Additionally, you are more aware of how much sugar, salt, and fat go into each meal.
While the physical health benefits of cooking for yourself are considerable, the mental health benefits will be even more important for some people. Depression is a significant risk factor for addiction and relapse, and a number of studies have now linked diet and depression, as well. One meta-analysis examined data from more than 45,000 participants and found that “dietary interventions significantly reduced depressive symptoms.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6455094/] The diets with the best effects are similar to the “Mediterranean diet,” which is rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, beans, legumes, and fish, while being very low in sugar, refined flour, processed meats, and fried foods. It is thought that this kind of eating helps reduce inflammation in the body and brain. Recent research suggests that inflammation may play a major role in some forms of depression, so keeping inflammation under control with a healthy diet may reduce your risk of depressive episodes.
People recovering from substance use issues often complain of cognitive impairment during the first few months and even up to a year. There are a number of reasons for this. Part of it is just your brain readjusting to the absence of drugs and alcohol, which sometimes results in emotional numbness, poor concentration, lack of motivation, irritability, and depression. Part of this may also be caused by structural changes in your brain, which weaken parts of your prefrontal cortex responsible for attention and self-control. Basically, your brain has trouble remaining interested in anything besides drugs and alcohol, so you have trouble focusing on—or enjoying—other things.
Like your muscles, your brain gets stronger the more you use it, and cooking can be a great way to start getting your brain back in shape. It combines a number of high-level cognitive skills, like planning, timing, and attention with low-level cognitive skills, such as taste, smell, and touch. Cooking can be either very simple, like cooking a pot of rice or frying some eggs, or it can be complex, like cooking an elaborate meal for friends.
The more complex it gets, the more it challenges your ability to multitask and think on your feet. You have to think about the best way to use your time and estimate how long various tasks will take to ensure all the food is ready at about the same time. While all of this can be demanding, it is also typically more fun and engaging than other ways you might challenge your brain. What’s more, since you’ll be eating the end result, you have a built-in incentive to focus and try to do a good job.
Finally, cooking is a great way to get people together. Social connection is one of the most important parts of a strong recovery, whether it’s connection to a sober network or to supportive family and friends. Cooking is a great way to strengthen that connection. Even just being a competent cook will make you more popular and give you an excuse to invite people over. Home-cooked meals are often more intimate and enjoyable and you have complete control over what goes into them, and you can avoid certain obstacles you may encounter while eating out: no party at the next table sharing several bottles of wine, no dishes with surprise alcohol in the sauce, and so on.
Recovering from addiction isn’t just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol, but rather about finding a better way to live. Learning to cook helps you stay healthier mentally and physically and can be part of a larger move toward a healthier lifestyle. It’s also just a useful skill to have, since it can benefit you for the rest of your life. At Enlightened Solutions, our approach to addiction recovery is both individualized and holistic. To learn more about our treatment options, call us today at 833-801-LIVE or explore our website.
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