This module describes basic human nutrition without relating it specifically to any addiction. These things are true for everyone, addicted or not. For the relationship between metabolism and addiction, see the module on Metabolism.


Nutrition is the science or study of a proper, balanced diet to promote health.

Nutrition Basics

You do not need to be an expert on nutrition to recover from eating or any other kind of addiction, but you do need enough sound nutritional information to make wise food choices. No matter how flexible or structured your food plan is, you should know the basis for what you are including or excluding.

Humans meet their nutritional needs by eating food. The two major sources of food are plants and animals. From these we get what are commonly referred to as the food groups.

Food Groups

Fruits, vegetables, and grains are from plants, and meats and dairy products are from animals. Some people include fats as a food group because some foods (like butter and cooking oils) are almost pure fat, which may come from animals or from plants.

Food choices From these choices, we decide where we are going to get our carbohydrates, protein, and fat. It is inaccurate to call a food choice “a protein” since almost all protein sources (like meats) include a considerable amount of fat also, and some (like beans) are also good sources of complex carbohydrates.

Problems can occur when you choose “a protein” for a food choice that is also high in fat, like nuts or peanut butter, and many red meats. We suggest that you learn in very broad terms an appreciation of the carbohydrate, protein, and fat content of common foods so you can make wise choices and still have effective weight management.

Fruits Most fruits are sources of simple carbohydrates, which are actually sugars. They are useful for energy, vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Vegetables Vegetables are sources of energy, vitamins, minerals, and fiber also. Some, especially those we call starchy vegetables, are good sources of complex carbohydrates (starch). Examples are potatoes, yams, and legumes (starchy beans). Many legumes are also good sources of protein.

Grains Grains are a category of food that are often ground into flour to make breads, cereals, and pasta, though some are eaten in a less processed form (like corn and rice). Their major use is to provide complex carbohydrates for fuel, as well as vitamins and minerals, and sometimes fiber.

The more common grains are wheat, corn, oats, barley, rice, rye, and millet. Products such as rice bran and oat bran have received much press about possible cholesterol-lowering qualities.

Whole grains In whole grain flour the entire grain is ground up, retaining the higher levels of vitamins and other nutrients in the bran and germ. White flour is only the endosperm (which generally has better baking characteristics), but some 80 percent of the trace nutrients are lost. These flours are usually “enriched” to restore the iron, niacin, thiamine, and riboflavin, but not the zinc, copper, and other minerals or fiber. Whole grain products are more nourishing.

Meats Meats include parts of various animals, such as cows, pigs, birds, and fish. We usually eat the fleshy part of the animal, but sometimes organs are eaten, such as the liver and heart.

Meat from cows (beef) and pigs (pork) is usually higher in fat than the meat from fish and birds (poultry). Most recommendations for healthy eating are to reduce the intake of high-fat meat for cardiovascular health as well as for weight management.

All meat is high in protein and it takes very little meat when combined with other sources of protein to fulfill your daily requirements. A woman whose healthy weight is about 130 pounds can usually get more than half her daily requirement for protein in one three and a half-ounce portion of meat.

Dairy products Dairy products are good sources of protein as well as calcium and other vitamins and minerals. Low-fat and nonfat products are usually the best choices for overweight or normal weight people. Anorexics may need to include higher fat dairy products to help gain weight without feeling they have to eat too much extra food.

Fats Some dietitians include fats as a food group. Products like margarine, oils, mayonnaise, nuts, and most salad dressings are primarily fat. You do need some dietary fat each day, but overweight or normal weight individuals will easily get enough in all but the most restrictive food plans.


The above food groups relate mainly to sources. The rest of this module considers the nutrients themselves, regardless of their source. Carbohydrates are the basic fuels (with fats) used by the body for heat and energy. They are of two types: sugar (including sugars naturally found in fruit, milk, and many other foods) and long chains of sugars called starches (found in grains and other vegetables). Unrefined carbohydrates, like whole grains and fruit, are higher in fiber and natural nutrients than refined carbohydrates, like table sugar and white flour. Carbohydrates should make up at least half our food energy (calories).

When broken down into glucose (blood sugar), carbohydrates form the preferred fuel for the body. An excess of glucose can easily be converted to glycogen, which is stored in the liver, muscles, and other tissues for short-term energy.

Simple carbohydrates (sugars) Simple carbohydrates are monosaccharides (one sugar molecule) and disaccharides (combinations of two sugar molecules). There are also trisaccharides (three) and tetrasaccharides (four sugar molecules), but they are rare and less important.

Sugars are found naturally in fruits, vegetables (including cane, beets, and corn), and other foods like milk. Many processed foods have added amounts of sucrose, fructose, or other sugars.

Complex carbohydrates (starches) Complex carbohydrates are long chains of sugar molecules. They are found in most vegetables, especially starchy ones like potatoes and beans, and cereal grains like wheat, rice, oats, and corn. Cellulose is actually another carbohydrate, but we do not have the enzymes to break it down, so it passes through the body virtually unchanged, and we call it fiber rather than a sugar or starch.

Starches must be broken down into monosaccharides before the body can use them as fuel. This process begins with enzymes in the saliva, but digestion is not completed until the sugars and starches reach the small intestine.

Hunger What most people report as hunger (physical, not emotional) is actually an awareness by the body that blood sugar and glycogen stores are low, and the body needs fuel. The fuel the body needs is best supplied by ample quantities of complex carbohydrates.


About 60 percent of our bodies is water, but about half the rest is protein. Known as building blocks of muscle and other tissues, as well as various important chemical substances used by the body, every protein is made up of hundreds or thousands of units called amino acids. Of the twenty or twenty-two kinds of amino acids found in the body, eight or nine are considered essential amino acids, because the body cannot make them out of other amino acids. These essential proteins must come from a well-balanced diet.

Protein makes muscle tissue, hormones, neurotransmitters, and other products vital for life. If too little protein is eaten, the body must take protein from tissues in the body. If too much protein is consumed, the excess is likely to be converted to fat.

When people think of protein, they usually think of meat, eggs, and dairy products. But all those farm animals got their protein from vegetable sources. Good legumes for protein include soybeans, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, chick-peas, navy beans, pinto beans, lentils, split peas, and lima beans.

Effects of deficiency If the body does not get enough protein, as in the starvation associated with anorexia nervosa or in very low calorie "diets, the body will rob protein from tissues in the body, including lean muscle, like the heart. Singer Karen Carpenter’s death has been attributed to heart failure caused by a combination of starvation and ipecac poisoning, related to her anorexia/bulimia.

Effects of excess Most Americans eat too much protein, perhaps with the idea that it is better to have too much than too little. The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) for protein (which includes a 45 percent safety margin) depends on your ideal body weight.

Requirements At birth, your RDA for protein is the highest it will ever be, at one gram daily per pound of body weight. It gradually declines to adults nineteen and over, at a third of a gram per pound. However, pregnant women should have about two-thirds gram per pound, and nursing women should have a half gram per pound of ideal weight. A simple rule of thumb for most adults is to divide your healthy weight by 3 and get about that number of grams of protein each day.

This means that a woman whose ideal weight is about 120 pounds should only get about 40 grams of protein a day, or less than 15 per meal. For example, a breakfast might be two-thirds cup cooked oatmeal (4.6 grams), eight ounces skim milk (8.8 grams), and a medium banana (1.2 grams). This would give you 14.6 grams of protein.

Excess fat All natural protein sources include fat, so an excess of protein usually means a high-fat diet. If, as part of your recovery, you are trying to lose weight gradually, the excess fat with the protein can be an obstacle to that weight loss. With good choices you can have adequate protein and still lose weight -- the breakfast above only contains 2.9 grams of fat.

Tyrosine/Norepinephrine Finally, an excess of protein can produce a mood-altering effect. Tyrosine is not one of the essential amino acids, but it is common in most protein sources, especially cheese (including cottage cheese) and milk chocolate. Tyrosine in the brain becomes norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter thatacts like an “upper,” increasing alertness and stimulating bodily functions.


Foods called fats are for long-term storage of energy, and also to electrically insulate nerves and to thermally insulate the body. There are three kinds of dietary fats: saturated fats (found mostly in meat and dairy products), monounsaturated fats (as in avocados and olives), and polyunsaturated fats (found in fish and many vegetable oils). Most people in the United States eat too many fats, especially saturated fats.

Dietary fats are dissolved by bile salts and then broken down into fatty acids and glycerol (an oily alcohol) by lipase, a pancreatic enzyme. They are absorbed into the lymphatic system before entering the bloodstream. All this means that fat takes longer to digest than carbohydrates.

Fats are used with carbohydrates as a fuel source. Ordinarily, if more fat is consumed than burned as fuel, you will gain weight. Like a bucket with a hole in the bottom, if you take in less fat than you burn up, the fat stored in your body will be used up, gradually.


The indigestible structural materials from plants are called fiber. Fiber is found in unprocessed foods, like fruits, raw vegetables, and Whole grains. There are two kinds of fiber, and both are usually present in many whole foods, but to differing degrees.

Insoluble fibers Insoluble fibers provide bulk for proper operation of the elimination system. They aid in preventing constipation and are a positive factor in decreasing the risk of colon cancer. Wheat bran and many legumes are good sources of insoluble fibers.

Soluble fibers Soluble fibers slow the digestion of certain foods, including glucose. Therefore, it is probably important for those sensitive to sugars to get adequate amounts of soluble fibers. Oat bran, barley bran, and many fruits are good sources of soluble fiber.


Our bodies are about 60 percent water. Water is required for most bodily functions, and more is needed if you are losing weight and having to flush out the toxic substances that result from the metabolism of stored fat. '


Substances that regulate metabolism, vitamins are necessary for the healthy functioning of the brain, nerves, muscles, skin, and bones. They do not provide energy themselves, but some are necessary to produce energy from foods.

A reasonably balanced diet contains all the vitamins we need, so supplements are not usually necessary. In fact, some vitamins, especially A, D, E, and K, are dangerous in excess amounts, and others may imbalance the biochemical balances in our metabolism. If you are concerned about your vitamin intake, you can take an ordinary daily multivitamin, but anything stronger should be taken only on good medical advice.


Also, a healthy diet will provide enough calcium for maintaining our bones, zinc and magnesium for controlling cell metabolism, and sodium and potassium to maintain fluid and electrolyte balances. Women who have heavy periods may need additional iron, and women need adequate calcium to help avoid osteoporosis in later years.

We human beings (not just addicts) have survived because our bodies can obtain all we need from a varied diet of natural, relatively unprocessed foods.

Unrealistic promises All the overt or veiled promises made by the pharmaceutical and food industries cannot gloss over the fact that we do not know enough about human nutrition to be able to supply all the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients in a pill form. We simply don’t know how much of what nutrients we need, and how much is detrimental.

Danger of megadoses A common American idea is that if some is good, more must be better. With vitamins and minerals, this reasoning can get you in a lot of trouble. Ingesting more than the RDA of any vitamin or mineral may actually deplete other vitamins or minerals, preventing the proper proportions from being absorbed. This can lead to actual poisoning or malnutrition much worse than a slight deficiency of a vitamin or mineral.

Herbs are drugs Before you begin taking large amounts of some herbal tea or other herbal concoction, remember that many herbs are drugs, even in relatively small quantities. In fact, they were among the only drugs we had for many centuries.

Useful in some circumstances Nature’s way to provide vitamins and minerals is in natural foods, eaten with a large variety of other foods. The danger of taking extra vitamins is twofold: you might actually take too much of a particular vitamin or mineral, and even if you don’t, you might be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking you don’t need to eat a.varied, natural diet since you’re taking a daily multivitamin pill.

While a normal multivitamin probably doesn’t hurt, the only people who need added vitamins or minerals are:

  • Pregnant or nursing mothers (when advised)
  • Women who have heavy periods (may need iron)
  • Others when recommended by their physician


Everything needs a balance. Anytime we are not giving the body the nutrients it needs, in reasonable (neither too high nor too low) quantities, we will experience some kind of malnutrition.

Food Labels

Learn to read food labels when shopping so you can make wise choices. You may have special needs to consider, such as the need to restrict salt. Books listing food values, like Pennington (1989), can help you get a better idea of the actual nutritional components of common foods.

Nutrition, see also: Biochemistry, Celebrations, Constipation, Diet mentality, Eating addiction, Eating plans, Edema, Exercise & activity, Fats, Hunger & appetite, Metabolism, Moderation, Overeaters Anonymous, Sugar, Sweeteners.

Updated 1 Sep 2015

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