John Giordano, Doctor of Humane Letters, MAC, CAP, Addiction Treatment Consultant

processed foods

Why is it that nearly every addiction treatment center in the U.S. has candy dishes strategically positioned throughout the facility? You find these little vessels of sugary delights in the reception area, administration office, counselors’ offices, in the residential areas next to beds and just about every other nook and cranny in the facility. And to what end – what is the purpose of having so much sugar around people working towards changing their lives? Is there a link between sugar and addiction? The answer may be a little more nuanced then you might think.

First and foremost it is important to understand that sugar affects the brain – the same region and neurotransmitters – in the same way as opioids, cocaine and many other drugs; both prescription and illicit. The effect is not as intense as drugs; however, excessive amounts of sugar will influence behavior. If you don’t believe me just go to any 5 year-old’s birthday party and watch the kids after they’ve passed out the cake and ice cream. That experience will relieve any doubts you might have had.

So with this being said, it would appear that addiction treatment facilities are trying to subtly ease the drug cravings an addict is likely to have at this stage of their recovery with candy and other sugary foods. Although the facilities’ intentions are good and the candy will serve the short term goal of easing cravings, is this practice opening another can of worms with new and severe health consequences?

I found some very concerning statistics that paint a bleak picture. More than half (65 percent) of the people who have gone through rehab gained weight after their treatment has been completed. Nearly 20 percent of all the people who have completed rehab became obese. Do those little sugar bombs in the pretty candy dishes have anything to do with it?

The More Sugar And Processed Foods You Eat,
The More You Want!

Albeit sugar can help reduce cravings; but more importantly it
is also very addictive. Julia Ross, author of ‘The Mood Cure’ claims that, “sugar is one of the most addictive substances on the planet”. And she is not alone; there are quite a few other experts who agree with her. Neuroscientists have shown, using fMRI to scan the brain‘s activity in real-time, that sugar leads to dopamine release in an area associated with motivation, novelty, and reward. This is the same brain region implicated in response to cocaine, heroin and other narcotics. Research also suggests that dopamine receptors can develop a tolerance to sugar requiring more of the substance to get an effect.

Every person who walks out of rehab joins the rest of us in a tainted pool of ultra processed foods; foods they need to avoid to capitalize on their new found opportunity of a sustainable recovery.

Our food chain might as well be called the ‘Ultra Processed Food Line.’ The researchers from the University of São Paulo and Tufts University, defined “ultra-processed” as Formulations of several ingredients which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include food substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular, flavors, colors, sweeteners, emulsifiers and other additives used to imitate sensorial qualities
of unprocessed or minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations or to disguise undesirable qualities of the final product.

In a recent study conducted by the University of São Paulo, researchers found that 57.9 percent of people’s calorie intake, on average, came from ultra-processed foods. Minimally processed or unprocessed foods—meat, plants, eggs, pasta, milk—accounted for 29.6 percent.

In essence, we have it backwards. More than half of all the food consumed by Americans is ultra-processed – what could possibly go wrong? Over the years, you and I have been trained like Pavlov’s dog to salivate in anticipation of sugar and flavor rather than consume nutritional food that is good for us. As a consequence, we are overfed, undernourished and on a very slippery slope headed to a town called Illsville.

The Health Risks Of Consuming High Sugar Foods
And Beverages Are Enormous.

Most experts believe that sugar consumption is a major cause of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver, accelerated cognitive decline, increases the risk of developing gout, increase kidney disease risk, cellular aging, and many other chronic diseases and dangerous conditions including depression which is linked to addiction.

One Hundred Years Ago The Average American Consumed 14 Pounds Of Sugar Per Year – Today it’s 153 Pounds!

What I find concerning is that long ago we were warned of dangers and health risks of sugar and processed foods. Professor Yudkin wrote about the coming health crisis fifty-years ago. John Yudkin FRSC was a British physiologist and nutritionist, the founding Professor of the Department of Nutrition at Queen Elizabeth College, London and popular author. In his book titled ‘Pure, White, and Deadly’ in the U.K. and ‘Sweet and Dangerous’ in the U.S.A. Yudkin predicted that that the consumption of sugar and processed foods were leading to a greatly increased incidence of coronary thrombosis; that it was certainly involved in dental caries, probably involved in obesity, diabetes and liver disease, and possibly involved in gout, dyspepsia and some cancers.

The food industry retaliated by doing what they always do; they tried to discredit Yudkin and did everything within their power
to impede his work including using their influence to defund
his research and prevent the publication of his book. They also deployed massive PR and advertising campaigns aimed at convincing consumers at large that their foods were safe and healthy. Their efforts were largely successful as evidenced by the health crisis we find ourselves in today.

So taking all of this into consideration, what is it that we can do right now to help people trying to find recovery?

Tips For A Healthy And Sustainable Recovery

I always recommend you speak with your doctor or health care professional before you start any diet, exercise program or supplement routine. I’ve found doctors of Integrative Medicine to be the most helpful, but have also had success with a licensed nutritionist. This is a decision you’ll need to make on your own.

Regardless of who you choose, let me give you some food for thought.

Get on a schedule where you eat three healthy meals and one snack a day that includes protein and lots of vegetables and fruits at the same time every day. Organic whole foods are your best option. The protein will help make the feel good chemicals (neurotransmitters) like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine while the vegetables and fruits provide the sugar you need in a way that doesn’t make you crash an hour later like sweets, candy and other processed foods. Avoid eating meals later at night.

Addiction robs its hosts of valuable nutrition. That being said it is often recommended that you start out with a good multivitamin supplement that covers most, if not all, of the nutritional bases. This will help get your levels up closer to where they need to be in a relatively short period of time.

Extended substance abuse is very harmful to neurotransmitters. Fortunately, new neurotransmitters can develop. B vitamins are needed to make the neurotransmitters in your brain. This is from an article I found in Psychology Today Magazine that will help you understand a bit better; “Bs are also necessary for production of neurotransmitters, which regulate mood and conduct messages through the brain. … B6 and B12 contribute to the myelin sheath around nerve cells, which speeds signals through the brain. B12 and folic acid together are needed for making normal cells, including blood cells.” Many addiction experts recommend taking a B-Complex vitamin every day.

Prebiotics, probiotics and enzymes are essential for gut health. This is important. Most people are unaware that we have a second brain in our gut. It’s true; Google it. What researchers have known for quite some time is that the brain in our gut affects our mood. To what extent is uncertain, but as the research continues to roll in, it’s beginning to appear as though the second brain plays a bigger role in our mood and behavior than ever previously thought. Our gut is also home to our immune system – all the more reason to take quality prebiotics, probiotics and enzymes daily.

Vitamin D is another supplement that when taken daily will support mood and improve immune function.

Omega 3 Fatty Acids have been shown to ease symptoms of depression and lower suicide attempts. It will also improve cognitive function and help you make better decisions.

5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP) promotes the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that can help ease depression and insomnia.

Tyrosine is an amino acid that is the precursor for dopamine, the primary neurotransmitter of reward and pleasure.

Taurine is an amino acid that supports liver function and eases anxiety.

Exercise – I can’t overstate the importance of exercise for overall good health. It will free you of toxins, improve cognition, aids your body in repairing itself, promotes the production of endorphins which in turn improves your mood, reduces anxiety, burns calories, helps with sleep and so much more. No excuses – get off the couch and on an exercise program right away. Go for a walk, ride a bike, take up tennis or yoga. The sooner you get started the better you’re going to feel and the healthier you’ll become.

Sleep is another area critical to a sustainable recovery that often gets neglected. Sleep is the time where a lot of the heavy lifting in repairing the body and brain takes place. Ideally, everyone should be getting eight hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. Go to bed at the same time every night. Many people benefit from practicing relaxation techniques before they go to bed. If you have sleep issues you should consult with your doctor.

Perhaps what I find most perplexing in this whole scenario is that the vast majority of treatment centers do not have an in-house nutritional program for addicts while they’re being treating, nor do they provide lifestyle education to help these people when they reenter their everyday lives. In my mind this is a travesty. Nutrition is essential to recovery, period. Substance abuse wreaks havoc on the human body and brain. It really just tears things up. Without proper nutrition to repair this damage, the rehab job is only half done. People are not going to feel whole walking out of the treatment facility – and for good reason, they’re not. We’re sending people with a poor self-image and fragile emotions out into the world without the tools they need to survive. Moreover, there is an abundance of research that clearly indicates proper nutrition is one of the drivers of successful recovery.

In saying this, I’d suggest that if you or a loved one is looking into treatment facilities, be sure to ask them about their on-site nutritional program or ask to speak with their nutritionist. If the facility has none, I’d hope that you would continue your search. Nutrition is just too important to recovery.

John Giordano is the founder of ‘Life Enhancement Aftercare & Chronic Relapse Recovery Center,’ an Addiction Treatment Consultant, President and Founder of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies, Chaplain of the North Miami Police Department and is the Second Vice President of the Greater North Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce. He is on the editorial board of the highly respected scientific Journal of Reward Deficiency Syndrome (JRDS) and has contributed to over 69 papers published in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals. For the latest development in cutting-edge addiction treatment, check out his websites: