Picking up new skills, hobbies, and interests is an important part of recovering from a substance use disorder. These things give you a sense of direction, keep you occupied, and increase your sense of self-efficacy. There are many great activities for recovery. Many people learn or resume playing an instrument or making art, for example, or get into sports or fitness. One activity many people don’t think of is cooking but it’s an activity with a huge return on your time investment. Here’s why.
It’s common for people starting out in recovery to have pretty poor health. Different substances affect your health in different ways. For example, excessive drinking can lead to cardiovascular disease, liver disease, type 2 diabetes, and malnutrition. Addiction can lead you to neglect your health in general. Typically, these conditions start improving once you get sober, but eating healthier can give you a big boost.
What’s more, a healthy diet is good for your mental health too. At least half of people with substance use issues have co-occurring mental health issues; one of the most common is major depression. A number of studies have found that diet has a significant effect on depression symptoms. People who eat a diet high in sugar, processed grains and meats, and fried food have much higher rates of depression than people who eat whole-food diets rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, legumes, and lean meats.
Cooking your own meals at least a few times a week is the fastest way to turn around a bad diet. One study found that people who cook more of their own meals ate fewer calories overall, ate less sugar, and less fat than people who ate out frequently. The study also found that when these people do go out, these healthier trends persist. Even if you make the same food at home that you would get in a restaurant, it tends to be healthier when you cook it yourself. You are more likely to begin with whole ingredients and less likely to add the huge amounts of sugar, salt, and fat typically found in prepackaged or restaurant food.
Cooking is a cognitively complex skill, especially when you’re first learning. You have to plan your meal, get the ingredients, set up the workspace, and coordinate the preparation. You often have to keep track of several things at once and figure out the best way to use your time. This requires planning, visualization, timing, spatial awareness, and focus. You also use your senses of taste and smell more than you ordinarily would. All of this is great training for your brain. Unlike other ways of challenging your brain, cooking is hands-on and engaging. You don’t have to force yourself to think or concentrate. You have skin in the game because you have to eat what you cook.
Mindfulness is a great recovery skill for many reasons. It helps you be more present and better cope with challenging emotions. While many people think of mindfulness as something that happens while sitting on a cushion in a quiet room, mindfulness is supposed to be something you bring to every aspect of your life. Mindfulness teachers often use mindful eating as an exercise. Too often, we gulp down our food while talking to someone, watching TV, or looking at our phones. We don’t even taste our food.
If you want to eat mindfully, the best way to do it by far is to cook your own meal. When you make your own food, you’re naturally curious to know how it turned out. What’s more, you know what’s in it and you’ll want to know how to make it better. You are more likely to linger over each bite, thinking about things like whether you added enough salt or too much onion, whether you cooked the pasta long enough, and so on. Not only does this exercise bring you into the present moment, but it will improve your eating habits since you will eat more slowly and notice when you are full.
Eating is probably the oldest form of social connection. Humans were likely sharing food before they were walking upright. Learning to cook even moderately well can be a great way of connecting to others. When you think about it, how many people do you know who can cook? Probably not many. Maybe not even one. Yet we all have to eat and we like to eat together. Cooking meals for friends and loved ones is a great excuse to get together and it’s often a more intimate experience than going out. After you cook a few decent meals for people, you will probably notice a bump in your popularity.
Cooking is as easy or as hard as you want it to be. Most of the staples of the human diet are pretty easy to make. For most people, the easiest place to start is with scrambled eggs. It’s simple, it takes less than 10 minutes, there are few ingredients, and it’s something you can eat often. There are many tutorials on YouTube but Gordon Ramsay’s is probably the best. After you’ve gotten your scrambled eggs under control, add new dishes one at a time. Try to make foods you would normally get elsewhere. Hamburgers, pasta, salad, and potatoes are all easy to make and are both cheaper and healthier to make at home. You’ll quickly discover that cooking isn’t some arcane art; it’s mostly just about following instructions, saving good recipes, and practice.
Cooking is a great recovery activity because it improves your physical and mental health, it challenges your brain in new ways, makes you more mindful, and it can be a way of connecting with others. Start simple by learning to make a few staple foods you like and build from there.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that recovery is not just about abstaining from drugs and alcohol but about building a better life. Our holistic programs help our clients heal in mind, body, and spirit. For more information, call us today at 833-801-LIVE.
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