Guest Post: Helping women recover from drug and alcohol addiction – can food play a part?

This is the third in a series of guest posts. If you would be interested in contributing, please get in touch!

Abuse, exploitation, mental health issues… there are many and varied reasons why people might become addicted to drugs or alcohol.

Equally, there are many and varied methods that could aid someone in their recovery journey.

I’ve been working to support people across Plymouth at different stages of their recovery journey – and most recently with women who have suffered judgement and shame, some of whom have also battled to keep their children while they address their addiction issues.

And there’s one thing that I believe can help as they fight their battle. Creative ways with Food.

There is very little available evidence on the nutritional intake and role food plays for women in recovery, something that I am supervising my dietetic/nutrition dissertation students to research this year*. But I believe the notion of food, what it means socially, culturally and creatively, can potentially help to empower women as they continue to strive and succeed.

Image 1: Food Dialogue activity

In 2016, I led an exploratory ‘food dialogue’ activity with 25 women from Trevi House and Longreach (female rehabilitation services) in Plymouth, laying out food images and asking them to select one they ‘liked’ and one they ‘disliked’, then discussing their images (image 1). This creative approach generated diverse and varied narratives uncovering the meaning of food for these women (see Pettinger, 2016 ‘Food Narratives’ Critical Dietetics abstract).

Others were transported back to their childhood food experiences and emotional episodes they associated with it. This approach brought about so much from individuals who may well have frozen up if asked ‘how are you feeling?’

Connectivity was another key theme drawn from the activity, as women spoke about the importance of preparing, cooking and eating with others, especially their children, and how it provided a sense of togetherness. The physical action of sharing food went hand in hand with sharing stories, experiences and realising they weren’t on their own – it was so empowering.

Image 2: Collaborative pizza making
Image 3: Food themed collage

This project also included a series of (ESRC Festival of Social Science) participatory food events run in a local Plymouth based day rehabilitation centre. Women from several local rehabilitation services were active participants in a range of creative food activities that formed part of research data collection, including audio interviews, collage and food games (images 2 and 3).

All of the women involved have complicated and often chaotic lives, but there seemed to be so much that they took from these simple creative food-themed activities.

So can we actually measure how successful these creative food activities are?

Food research is an incredibly complex area – dealing with everything from basic food science, to improving nutritional intake of socially marginalised groups. Participatory Art-based research methods don’t provide definitive answers, but they can open up new questions, which is just as valuable – if not more so (See Flint et al 2017, Using the Arts for Food Research and Dialogue).

Creative methods help us to understand both what the problems are and why these problems might exist. Women in recovery are so much more than the addiction they are recovering from. They are strong, brave and have huge potential to empower others who are going through similar situations.

“Creativity, compassion, connectivity and courage are crucial to help women in recovery. Their determination unites them, and food can empower them – so I feel privileged to be in a position to support”

(Clare Pettinger, research lead)

SRPThis preliminary research has led to my involvement in the Sunflower Recovery Project, a Plymouth based project, designed to support and empower women accessing residential drug and alcohol services. At the heart of Project Sunflower is the idea of aspiration – the strong belief that women who are recovering from drug and alcohol dependency should be empowered and supported to achieve their full potential. The project has set up a peer mentor training programme, to support women to support other women on their journey. A new Sunflower women’s centre has just opened in Plymouth, providing a safe space for women in recovery to meet, support and empower each other. I am leading on the evaluation of the project and work is underway to collect data on how the women feel about the project. I will be talking at the DAWF conference about creative participatory evaluation approaches, involving the sunflower women as co-researchers. Data collection will include case studies, interviews and collecting inspirational stories which will be formed into a Sunflower ‘Book of Hope’ which will be used to inspire and empower other women in recovery.

Even our students are passionate about helping

Dietetic and nutrition students Deanne Carlson et al* will be presenting a poster of their Undergraduate dissertation methods at the DAWF conference in May. Their dissertation aims to investigate the role of food and nutrition for women in recovery from alcohol and substance misuse using a multi-centre cross-sectional survey design combined with 24hour recall, taking a snapshot of the women’s knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours around food. The students have highlighted the value of exploring an ‘under-researched’ yet important topic for women in recovery. This pilot study will provide evidence to support the importance of the involvement of expert nutrition professionals to deliver nutrition interventions in these services that might improve health outcomes and facilitate relapse prevention.

All photos are courtesy of my amazing community partners Fotonow CIC.


Dr Clare Pettinger is a lecturer in Public Health Dietetics at the University of Plymouth. Her research focuses on the use of creative methods to engage ‘harder to reach’ individuals and communities in (food and) wellbeing dialogues. Participatory, co-production and empowerment approaches are at the heart of her work. For more information, see Clare’s staff profile.

Deanne Carlson, Chloe Berry, Jemma Jones, Kirsty Williams, Robyn Eede and Nicole Harris are final year dietetic/nutrition students in the School of Health Professions, University of Plymouth. They are conducting their dissertation project on the topic of ‘exploring the role of food and nutrition for women in recovery from alcohol and substance misuse’ supervised by Clare Pettinger.

Published by DAWF

Drugs, Alcohol, Women, and Families

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