For many patients with substance use disorders, social issues can be as challenging to overcome as their clinical counterparts. Securing housing, finding employment and re-establishing relationships with family each can prove challenging.
A program launched earlier this year at Boston Medical Center’s Grayken Center for Addiction aims to take one issue off the table by putting better food on. The Cooking for Recovery program at Grayken shows patients the role good nutrition plays in recovery through cooking demonstrations of healthy meals, as well as the use of a food pantry.
“Eating good food is not top of mind for most people who are active in their addiction. I, for one, can attest to that,” says Grayken Center executive director Michael Botticelli. “We know good nutrition can support people’s recovery and that there are specific foods that can diminish cravings and contribute to the overall health of people with histories of addiction.”
Boston Medical Center (BMC) began hosting food preparation classes for patients in a teaching kitchen in 2001, starting with demonstrations for patients with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, weight management issues and chronic pain. Tracey Burg, RD, LDN, who teaches the classes, says that after talking with Botticelli, a program for addiction recovery patients was “a no-brainer.”
“Kitchens, generally speaking, are places where people can interact in a friendly, relaxed way,” Burg says. “The kitchen is the hub of someone’s home. That’s what this place is. It takes down any barrier or shame for someone recovering from substance use. We just talk food and health.”
Burg says it is natural for patients to be tempted to trade an addiction to drugs or alcohol for one to sweets, as sugar increases serotonin, which gives a boost of relaxation and decreases depression.
“If they are recovering from drugs or alcohol and then they start in this vicious cycle of eating junk food, they are not healing bodies, which have been ravaged and depleted of vitamins and nutrients, neurotransmitters that help them think clearly,” Burg says. “A lot of that has been damaged. When they go into these other foods, they are going to gain weight, and that makes them depressed and results in relapsing. What we’re trying to do is show them healthy foods that can help them to heal.”
In her cooking demonstrations, Burg provides an example of a healthy plate, and then engages patients in the cooking process. Recent demonstrations have included recipes for Tuscan kale salad, roasted chicken thighs prepared in a variety of spice rubs, sweet potatoes, and roasted vegetables.
Classes are held once a month and are free for patients at Grayken. Botticelli says the center is exploring the possibility of expanding the program to non-patients, as well.
Another aspect of BMC’s dedication to healthy food is providing patients with access to an in-house food pantry. The latest iteration of the center’s pantry features walk-in refrigerators, and it provides patients with enough food to feed a family for three to five days. Patients can use the pantry twice per month.
“Recovery is so much more than just using substances,” Botticelli says. “We want people to have healthy, happy lives. Part of that is good nutritional habits. It’s important for us to help our patients with that overall sense of well-being and happiness.”
Photographs by Matthew Morris.
Addiction professionals annually convene at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders to share what’s working: Clinicians hear from thought leaders on delivering treatment, while executives of behavioral healthcare organizations learn how to run more effective, more efficient, and ethically minded businesses.