Count Nutrients, Not Calories



“In recovery, we need to focus on the nutrients in our food and then the calories will take care of themselves.” – Mary P. Cheney

Before we discuss the nutrients in our food, it’s important to get a handle on one of the most misunderstood concepts in nutrition, calories.


What is a Calorie?

Strictly speaking, a calorie is not a specific thing at all but rather a measurement of how much energy a given food provides. When we talk about the number of calories in a food, we are really discussing how much energy the body gets from that food. Calories are not nutrients, and it is possible for a food to provide plenty of calories without many nutrients.

Ideally, we want to have an even balance between the numbers of calories we consume and the amount of energy we expend. But caloric need can vary a great deal among individuals. If you are a professional figure skater who practices six hours a day and competes ten months out of the year, you burn a lot of energy, and you need a fair number of calories to power all that activity and maintain normal bodily processes. If on the other hand, you are an accountant who does a lot of detail work behind a desk and exercises only intermittently, your energy needs are a lot less spectacular. If you eat foods that provide more calories (energy) than your body needs at the time, your body will store it away for later use – in fat cells.

Calories, then, are only the most basic and simplistic of nutritional measures. A food such as sugar or bourbon may provide energy in the form of calories, but it won’t provide any of the nutrients that the body needs to help run the “furnace” that burns all that energy.

The Importance of Nutrient Density

The balance of calories to nutrients in a given food is usually referred to as “nutrient density.” Nutrient dense foods provide lots of nutrients in relatively few calories, while low nutrient density foods have far more calories than nutrients.

Some examples of nutrient dense foods include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free milk and dairy products, nuts, beans, seeds, eggs, turkey, chicken, fish and lean cuts of meats. These foods provide fewer calories while being excellent sources of nutrients such as the B-vitamins, vitamins A, C, D and E, protein, calcium, iron, potassium, zinc, fiber and monounsaturated fatty acids. Vegetables, fruits, grains and beans also contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are natural compounds such as beta-carotene, lutein and lycopene. Like vitamins, minerals, and fiber, phytochemicals promote good health in recovery.

Some examples of low nutrient density foods include cakes, cookies, pies, pastries, puddings, doughnuts, jams, syrups, jelly, sweetened fruit drinks, “fast foods” such as fries, fried chicken, ice cream, chips, salted snacks, candy, soda, and energy/sports drinks. These foods are high in calories but low in nutrients and should only be eaten sparingly or better yet, avoided in recovery.

Unfortunately, most people with alcohol and/or substance abuse problems, as well as, those with eating disorders tend to consume these low nutrient density foods in the form of highly processed fast foods, junk foods, and so called “convenience” foods that contain huge amounts of refined carbohydrates, artificial additives, and unnatural fats. When this poor diet is compounded by alcohol intake, drug use, or the devastating effects of binging, purging, excessive exercising, and inappropriate dieting it provokes an even greater nutritional crisis wherein the already overburdened body must draw on stored nutrients in order to function. If we really intend to nourish the body, we must give it not only the nutrients it needs to function right now, but also the nutrients it requires to replenish those lost nutritional stores.

Focus on the Quality of The Calories Not Quantity

If we focus only on our caloric intake in recovery we will set ourselves up for nutritional disaster. For example, while almost anyone could survive and perhaps even loose weight eating 1200 calories a day of low nutrient density foods like soda, ice cream, and chips; you would not only be malnourished but you would feel really lousy doing it. This is because a malnourished brain is a malfunctioning one with the body exhibiting the symptoms of this dysfunction. And for those of us in recovery, a diet of low nutrient density but high in calories foods will not only perpetuate the cycle of nutritional deficiency but could also result in feelings of depression, fatigue, anxiety, mood swings, concentration problems, and cravings which could interfere with the recovery process.

When eating for recovery, we need to start putting the focus on the nutrients in the foods we consume and less on the calories and then the calories will take care of themselves. In other words, we need to focus on the quality of the calories not the quantity. While knowing how many calories a day your body requires is helpful, it need not be a blue print for eating in recovery.

Practice Portion Size

While those of us in recovery may be free from calorie counting, we are not free from the practice of choosing healthy portion sizes when eating our meals and snacks. As I like to tell my husband, “You can have a grass-fed organic steak but you can’t have half the cow.” In recovery while many of us are learning what “normal” is for the first time; we also need to learn what healthy normal portion sizes are for our meals and snacks.

Choose High Nutrient Density Foods over Low Nutrient Density Foods

When choosing foods that will nourish your body, mind, and spirit in recovery, you need to choose high nutrient density foods over low nutrient density foods. And in order to do that, you need to know what they are, how to shop for them, prepare them, and cook them; so that you can make the changes that will help your brain (and the rest of your body) heal so that you can experience the joy of a healthy recovery. Our blog and our book, “Food For Recovery” is here to assist you in this journey to wellness. The choice, and the power, are yours.

Health and Happiness,

Mary P. Cheney, CHC




Sweet Ending: Desserts in Recovery


Serving a dessert can be a tasty and nutritious way to make a meal last a little longer. Unlike most traditional desserts, which are high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, the recovery recipes found in our book, “Food For Recovery” are made from hearty whole-grain flours, fresh fruits, nuts, and other whole foods ingredients. There are also wheat-free, egg-free, and even no-bake recipes.

The recovery desserts provide an abundance of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes. Unlike many desserts, these recipes do not rob the body of nutrients but rather enhance a recovery diet.

So yes, when eating for recovery you can make a dessert and eat it too.

Here is one to try that is perfect for the fall season and can be made with many variations of fruit.


Apple-Blueberry Crisp

This is a nutritious low-fat recipe. This crisp is high in fiber, biotin, and manganese. Any favorite fruit combinations will do.

Serves 10

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour or 3/4 cup barley flour and 3/4 cup soy flour

1/2 cup oats

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 cup iced apple juice

2 tablespoons apple juice

10 apples, preferably McIntosh, peeled, cored, and sliced

2 cups blueberries

1/2 cup crushed walnuts or pecans

1. Preheat the oven to 350° F

2. In a medium bowl, combine the flour, oats, and salt. Add the oil and with a fork stir the mixture until it resembles small peas. Add the iced apple juice a little at a time, adding just enough so that the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl into a rough ball. Press together with your hands, then return the dough to the bowl and set aside 10 minutes.

3. Break the dough into tiny pieces and place on a greased baking sheet. Bake 10 minutes, or until the dough is crunchy.

4. In a large pot, bring the apple juice to a boil over high heat. Add the apples and blueberries, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour into an 8 x 8 X 2-inch baking dish.

5. Sprinkle the cooked dough and nuts over the fruit. Bake 35 to 40 minutes. You may want to put a piece of foil or a baking sheet under the pan, since the juices may bubble up and out of the pan onto the oven floor.

Variation: Peach-Strawberry Crisp: Substitute 12 peaches, peeled, pitted, and sliced, and 2 cups sliced strawberries for the apples and blueberries. Substitute 1/2 cup crushed pecans for the walnuts.

Variation: Pear Crisp: Substitute 10 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced, for the apples.

Note: You can substitute frozen blueberries if out of season and just bake a little longer as crisp may have more liquid. You can also cover with foil at the end if it browns too quickly on top.

Gluten Free: You can substitute a gluten free flour mix for the 1 ½ cup whole wheat flour. I love King Arthur’s Gluten Free “Measure For Measure Flour” as you can simply substitute equal parts (1-1) for an easy and convenient swap for conventional flours.

Health and Happiness,

Mary P. Cheney, H.C.


From: Food For Recovery 4th Edition: The Complete Nutritional Companion for Recovering from Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, and Eating Disorders

Copyright © 2018 by Mary P. Cheney, H.C., Joseph D. Beasley, M.D. and Susan Knightly

Pasta in Recovery


Contrary to popular belief, pasta is low in calories and in fat, even though it is filling. Whole-grain pastas provide fiber, complex carbohydrates, protein, niacin, and phosphorus. There are countless types of pastas and pasta dishes from virtually everywhere in the world. For example, pasta has been a staple of the Oriental diet for centuries, and the egg noodles we use in so many Eastern European dishes actually originated in the Orient.

  • In Japan, soba noodles and udon noodles are immensely popular while in China the universal favorites are mung bean noodles (often sold as bean thread or cellophane noodles).
  • And in the Middle East, couscous—a tiny grain-like pasta made from wheat—is served with many traditional meat or vegetable dishes.
  • But pasta found its niche and reached its peak in Italy, where it can be found in dozens of shapes and forms.

Although many of these popular pastas are made from highly processed flour (most notably durum semolina), there is an increasing variety of whole-grain pastas on the market.

The healthiest choices for those of us in recovery (and those who are not) are those made with whole-grain flours such as whole wheat, buckwheat, rice, soy, and quinoa, and also from vegetables such as spinach, beets, carrots, tomatoes, corn, Jerusalem artichokes, and potatoes. The recovery recipes found in our book “Food For Recovery 4th Edition” rely on such whole-grain pastas to make healthy low-fat dishes that will satisfy the most hearty appetite.


Here is one to celebrate National Pasta Day:


Linguine with Mushrooms and Peas 

Linguine with Mushrooms and Peas are a good source of minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and chromium. Peas have almost no fat or sodium. One serving of fresh peas supplies the same amount of protein as an egg. They also provide vitamins C and B-complex, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and potassium.

Serves 4

12—16 ounces linguine or other noodles

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium shallots,

minced 1/2 pound mushrooms, sliced

2 cups fresh peas, cooked (see Note), or 2 cups fresh-frozen peas

1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh parsley

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon finely minced fresh dill or 1/4 teaspoon dried

1. Fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain well.
2. In the meantime, warm the oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the shallots and cook until golden brown, about 4 minutes, then add the mushrooms and cook until browned, about 6 minutes. If the pan gets too dry, add up to 1/4 cup of stock or water. Add the peas and herbs, and cook, covered, for 5 minutes.
3. Top the pasta with the vegetable mixture.

Note: To cook fresh peas, bring a pot of water to a boil, drop in the peas, and cook 5 minutes, or until softened but still a bit crunchy, or prepare by cooking in a vegetable steamer.

Note: Can be made gluten free by choosing a gluten free pasta such as brown rice pasta, quinoa pasta, corn pasta, or even spaghetti squash.

Health and Happiness,

Mary P. Cheney, H.C.

From: Food For Recovery 4th Edition: The Complete Nutritional Companion for Recovering from Alcoholism, Drug Addiction, and Eating Disorders

Copyright © 2018 by Mary P. Cheney, H.C., Joseph D. Beasley, M.D. and Susan Knightly

The Blessing and The Curse

Blessing, Curse Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Blue Sky and Clouds.


“Death ends a life, not a relationship.” – Robert Benchley


As Dr. Beasley’s illness progressed and our conversations went from “if I die” to “when I die”, he presented me with a folder. As I opened the folder to find a stack of legal papers, he asked if I would promise to carry on his work and keep his legacy alive.

As I teared up he said in a southern drawl, “Darling this is not the time to cry, this is the time to listen” and he then gave me a list of things to do when he was gone. As I read the list and realized it would take me at least three lifetimes to accomplish it, I noticed that the last two things on the list were “Make it yours” and “Don’t change anything” which caused me to burst out laughing and crying at the same time. You see those two things summed up our relationship, I was always trying to “change things” and he was always trying to “keep things the same”.

For example, when twitter came along, I wanted to get him a twitter account which he promptly refused saying, “Darling, birds tweet, people don’t” and when I wanted to set up a blog for him, he said, “Why blog darling, when you can write the book?”.

It was during this dinner that he warned me for the first time that carrying on your mentor’s work and legacy can be both a blessing and a curse. While I understood the blessing part, I asked him about the “curse” which caused him to say with tears in his eyes, “you will see”.

A year after his death, with Peaches his beloved dog dying in my arms, I was finally able to see it clearly for the first time. While in my heart I knew he wanted Peaches cremated, my desire was to have her buried with her canine sister, Hope who passed a few months earlier. When I told Peaches it was ok to go to heaven and be with her daddy she opened her eyes and wagged her tail and that is when it became clear. I would have her cremated to honor Dr. Beasley’s wishes and then bury her later with Hope. While the blessings of carrying on your mentor’s legacy was easy to see, the “curse” was much harder, it was that persistent feeling of, “Am I carrying out his wishes?”.

Since Dr. Beasley’s passing, I have learnt to do both, “Make it mine” and “Don’t change anything”, as I discovered for me it was about merging Dr. Beasley’s dream and wishes with mine. For example, I have returned to school to finish the master’s degree which I put on hold when Dr. Beasley became ill but this time it was in health coaching not a MPH/MBA.

Now as I put the finishing touches on the fourth edition of “Food For Recovery”, I can see that I have truly “made it mine” while not “changing anything”. For example, while I have made the changes that I know in my heart needed to be made, I have not changed one of Chef Susan’s recipes but I did add a few of my own. So in the end I did actually ‘keep it the same” but “made it mine” and now I can say mission accomplished Dr. Beasley.

Health and Happiness,

Mary P. Cheney, H.C., B.Sc., P.T.A.