Sober weight gain was a shock to me. When I got sober, the last thing I expected was gaining a load of weight and insatiable food cravings. If that was advertised as a side effect of sobriety, some of us may not sign up. But the reality is that sober weight gain and hunger for certain foods are very common in recovery.
For some people, these issues resolve themselves after a few months. In others, getting sober reveals deeper issues—such as eating disorders. I’m here to tell you that these physical changes needn’t make you feel hopeless and depressed—there are some really easy ways to tackle these changes so that you feel empowered and gain more energy to sustain your recovery.
The Ugly Truth About Sober Weight Gain
When I first got sober, I couldn’t stop eating. Cake, pastries, bread, cheese, candy became my obsession. I’d sit in meetings obsessing about what I would eat when I get home. I binged like this for the first two years in recovery and felt bloated and was 150 pounds’ overweigh. Exhausted all the time, and chronically depressed, I kept trying to stop, only to find myself at the end of a packet of cookies within a few days.
Much like substance use disorder, I couldn’t understand why I kept repeating this pattern of behavior: eating against my will. I felt utterly hopeless and I hated my body. Food was my crossover addiction.
Dopamine’s The Real Villain Here
What I didn’t realize until a few years later, is that my brain was transferring my addiction from drugs and alcohol to food—because it produced exactly the same effect in my brain: the release of dopamine (one of the body’s feel good chemicals).
What’s more, the addictive brain is sophisticated enough to override rational thought in pursuit of dopamine. I realized that I needn’t feel so much shame because a lot of what was happening was beyond my control.
Understanding this information, helped me to retrain my brain, lose 60 pounds, and override that process in my brain. That’s right—the brain is plastic enough to change. How amazing is that?!
I Took These Steps To Combat My Sober Weight Gain
1. I Quit Buying Packaged Food
If it wasn’t a whole food—i.e. from the ground, or from a fish/animal—I didn’t eat it. By not eating processed foods, I gained some control of my eating habits because whole foods don’t overpower your rational brain—so I ate what I intended to. Also, they provided more sustained energy and I didn’t have terrible mood swings.
2. I Sought Natural Feel Good Chemicals—Endorphins—Through Regular Exercise
Exercise helps with everything. How to start an exercise routine is easier than you think. I started with a ten minute walk. Before long, I was cycling everywhere and going to the gym regularly. I felt mentally and physically miles better; I slept better and my mood was more stable. Also, feeling energized led to better food choices.
3. I Connected With People In Recovery
I sought regular connection with other people in recovery at meetings, coffee with female friends, and events and workshops. Did you know that hugging releases oxytocin—which also makes us feel good, lowers our blood pressure, decreases stress, and makes us feel warm and fuzzy—kind of what we seek in cake and booze!
4. I Joined A Support Group
I had to treat my new addiction the same way I treated my first one. I joined a support group for people who struggle with food issues. Empathy and knowing you’re not alone is a really powerful way to overcome emotional eating and give you inspiration and motivation to stay healthy. It also provides support and compassion for when you are really hard on yourself.
5. I Began Meditating Every Day For Ten Minutes
Medication soothes my anxiety and allowed me check in with my body and see what I was hungry for. Sometimes is wasn’t actually food; I was either thirsty, or needed relaxation and time out because I felt stressed. I used Headspace for guided meditations, but there are many other apps available.
6. I Found Restorative Activities Like Yin, Kundalini Or Restorative Yoga
Yoga provided a much-needed outlet for stress, relaxed my whole body, and promoted a feeling of calm and overall wellness.
The key with any change is to start small and build up changes slowly. Perhaps you could start with exercise and practice that for a couple of weeks before changing your diet. Slow and consistent changes build sustainable results and overall change. By focusing on you and what you really need, the sober weight gain will begin to melt away.
I also found fun with recovery books and workbooks and recovery products that keep my recovery front of mind. Do you have a journal, for example? They really help with motivation, and you can track your progress.