Ask the Expert: Dietitian Nicki Zeidner

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Dietitian Nicki Zeidner about eating better while in recovery and dealing with mental health disorders.

Q: What is nutrition, and why is it important in recovery?

Food and beverages provide the body with energy and nutrients (carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water) that support growth, healing and major body functions and systems. Drug and alcohol use negatively impact food choices and/or intake and impairs how the body absorbs and processes nutrients, harming both physical and mental well-being. Good nutrition and hydration are important all the time, but especially important in recovery to promote healing of both body and mind.

Q: How can a substance use disorder and/or a mental health disorder affect someone’s relationship with food?

Anxiety, depression, disordered eating behaviors, and abuse of substances often co-occur and result in nutrient deficiencies that further complicate one’s relationship with food. Altered appetite (increased or decreased), enhanced cravings, lack of motivation for eating or physical activity, and/or budgetary restraints can all contribute to poor dietary choices. Without the intervention of consistent and balanced meals providing necessary nutrients, mental and physical health can continue to decline.

Q: If someone often gets cravings for foods that aren’t the healthiest, what can they do to stop them? Why do they get cravings?

Sugar and caffeine are common substance substitutions that provide quick energy and a mood boost, but in excess leave us wanting more. Some believe that abstinence from sugar and/or caffeine is the answer. Restriction of sugar and/or caffeine may work for a limited few, but for most it results in even more bingeing on sweets and a horrible headache from caffeine withdrawal. Sugar naturally occurs in fruit and dairy products; it’s all the added sugar in processed foods that can add up to be too much. Caffeine in doses below 400mg/day has been shown to have some health benefits. Consistently eating a variety of foods that provide a balance of all nutrients in moderation provides the energy the body and brain need to help dampen cravings for sugar and caffeine.

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Q: Can you suggest some nutritious meals and snacks that are easy to prepare?

To provide adequate fuel and nutrients for the body, aim for three meals/day spaced out every 3-5 hours. Also, be selective with snacks. A balanced meal includes foods rich in carbohydrates, protein, and fat – yes, we need all three for our body and brain to function well. Carbohydrate rich foods include fruits and vegetables, grains like whole grain bread, cereal, pasta, rice, quinoa, and beans. Protein can come from animal sources like dairy products, beef, pork, poultry, fish, and eggs as well as plant-based foods such as soy, nuts, beans, and quinoa. Added healthy sources of fats include olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.

Smoothies made with a variety of fruit and leafy greens, Greek yogurt/kefir, and even white beans make a quick and complete meal in a cup.

Bowls layered with whole grains (quinoa, brown rice), protein (beef, chicken, beans, or eggs), and a variety of veggies, sprinkled with nuts, seeds, avocado, or grated cheese are an easy and filling meal.

Mixed nuts and seeds, medjool dates or dried cranberries are examples of a few snack foods that are easy to carry with you and curb low energy dips or sugar cravings.

Q: What are some tips for accessing affordable and healthy food on any budget?

Whether you eat out or at home, the cost of food is rapidly rising. Making a PLAN for more home-cooked meals will help with your food budget. As you make your plan for the week, take advantage of sales and stock up on items you routinely use.

Flipp.com is a useful site for checking prices as you make your plan for the week.

Seek assistance from Hunger Solutions to determine if you qualify for SNAP benefits and learn the location of nearby food shelves, meal programs and farmer’s markets.

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Q: March is National Nutrition Month®. What are some resources that people can access to support healthful eating for recovery?

Visit EatRight.org for tip sheets and handout, like: Eat Right with MyPlate, Eating Right on a Budget, Eating Right with Less Added Sugars, Smart Tips for Successful Meals. Also: www.myplate.gov.

Access to a RDN: www.eatright.org/find-a-nutrition-expert

For help with Eating Disorders: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org


Nicki Zeidner, MEd, RDN, LD, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Health Promotion and Education from Vanderbilt University. As the Dietitian/Nutritionist at Elite Recovery, Nicki leads a weekly nutrition group and sees male and female clients for individual nutrition consults. Prior to joining the Elite Recovery team in April 2021, Nicki was the Business Development and Community Relations Specialist for Melrose Center. Utilizing her past experience as a dietitian for treatment programs, she supported the Melrose Eating Disorders and Substance Use Disorder (EDSUD) specialty program by providing nutrition education presentations for clients and trainings for staff at several local treatment programs.

Nicki skillfully helps individuals and groups translate the complex science of nutrition into understandable and relatable terms. With Nicki’s help, eating to support recovery is realistic and enjoyable!

If you have a question for the experts, or you are an expert interested in being featured, please email phoenix@thephoenixspirit.com. Experts have not been compensated for their advice.

Last Updated on March 9, 2022

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