Getty image family eating food at a table

Abuse, exploitation, mental health problems… there many 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. Food.

I’m not saying that a particular food will miraculously ‘make addiction disappear’ – there is very little available evidence on the nutritional intake and role food plays for women in recovery, something that my dietetic dissertation students are researching this year. But the notion of food, what it means socially, culturally and creatively, can potentially help to empower women as they continue to strive and succeed. 

I led an exploratory ‘food dialogue’ activity with 25 women from Trevi House and Longreach in Plymouth, laying out food images and asking them to select one they ‘liked’ and one they ‘disliked’, then discussing their images. This creative approach generated diverse and varied narratives uncovering the meaning of food for these women.

For example, one woman wrote:

“I like chocolate I am really really bad….It’s like swapping one addiction for another”

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

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.

Dr Clare Pettinger on the importance of food creativity.

Clare PettingerClare Pettinger
Associate Professor in Public Health Dietetics

Connectivity was another key theme drawn from this activity, as women spoke about the importance of preparing, cooking and eating together with 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. All of these women have complicated 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. 

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.

This preliminary research has led to my involvement in the Sunflower Recovery Project – designed to support and empower women accessing residential drug and alcohol services in Plymouth. 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.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.
Early participatory data collection involved the women writing on a tablecloth what the word ‘empowerment’ meant to them, examples of words and drawings included: Having a voice, love, empathy, uniqueness, independence, wholeness, recovery, value, self compassion, self worth, bravery, self belief and honesty.
Participatory and creative approaches will be used for the evaluation, including 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.

Are you interested in studying dietetics?

A lot of people think dietitians just advise and support people with weight problems. That's a relatively small part of what they do.
Watch the video to find out more about learning, placements and careers and see what's it's like to study at Plymouth.

Dietetics and health research

Understand the fundamental biological processes which can lead to ill health, the necessary interventions which can be made through effective health education and promotion to minimise risk, and address processes by which changes can be achieved.
Fruit at a farmers market