Can a Plant-Based Diet Help with Addiction Recovery?

Adam Sud’s dietary choices helped him conquer addiction; now, he’s hoping a scientific study will shed light on what’s missing from standard recovery programs

Can a Plant-Based Diet Help with Addiction Recovery?

Adam Sud checked into a rehab facility in Tucson, AZ, in 2012. He was struggling with addictions to fast food and Adderall, a prescription drug used to treat ADHD. He had survived a suicide attempt by drug overdose. Now, he was committed to making changes for good.

When he entered treatment, Sud was quickly diagnosed with a barrage of ailments ranging from type 2 diabetes to erectile dysfunction and given corresponding medications. That helped. But something else gave him a surprising edge in recovery.

Addiction in America

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 19.3 million Americans over 18 years of age had a substance use disorder in 2018. Of those, 38 percent struggled with illicit drug use, 75 percent with alcohol use, and 13 percent with both.

The statistics on recovery are just as startling: The relapse rate for people with substance use disorders is estimated between 40 and 60 percent.

“Standard recovery programs have a miserable success rate,” says Sud. “The system that is considered to be the gold standard is a model that fails most people.”

Sud has been sober for seven years and counting. He has a theory about why. Now, with the help of a new scientific study, Sud’s nonprofit, Plant Based for Positive Change, is on a mission explore how a nutrient-dense diet may make all the difference.

The food factor

Several years prior to entering treatment, Sud attended an Engine 2 Plant-Strong Immersion, where Rip Esselstyn, author of The Engine 2 Diet, discussed the benefits of a whole-food, plant-based diet.

In a sober living facility following his stint in rehab, Sud made the switch to a plant-based diet. In three months, he reversed his diabetes, elevated blood pressure, and high cholesterol. In 10, he lost 100 pounds. Within the first year, Sud was off all rehab-prescribed medications. Most importantly, he beat the odds.

“I saw all these people around me trying to get sober, but food was never addressed as part of the problem,” he says. His halfway house counterparts were on the same medications at higher dosages or on more medications over time; many gained weight.

“There were completely different outcomes for them versus me, and the only difference was the food environment,” says Sud.

The new study

Tara Kemp first met Sud in 2016 at an event where he shared his story. The two bonded over a passion for understanding why people turn to certain behaviors as coping mechanisms.

Today, the duo is collaborating on a scientific study that has the potential to reveal important truths about the role of nutrition in the addiction recovery process. The INFINITE Study, named after the Austin, TX, recovery center where the study is being conducted through December 2021, seeks to understand the impact of a low-fat, whole-food, plant-based diet on health (both mental and physical) and resilience in addiction recovery.

“This is the first time this research question has ever been asked,” says Kemp. The Northern Arizona University PhD student brought Sud’s vision to Jay Sutliffe, the professor sponsoring the study.

“We’re mostly doing novel work here, which is frightening at times, but also really exciting in that we have this blank slate … and whatever we find will be useful,” she adds.

At Infinite Recovery, people entering the inpatient treatment program for any addiction can volunteer for the 10-week trial. While the control group gets nutrition education on the USDA’s MyPlate protocol and eats what many call “the standard American diet,” the treatment group eats a low-fat plant-based diet without added salt, refined sugar, or oil and receives education on this lifestyle.

The trial is broken into two sections. The first three weeks are spent at Infinite Recovery, where all meals and snacks are documented and photographed. Participants only eat what is provided, as outside food and visitors are prohibited during this phase.

During the next seven weeks at an outpatient or halfway house facility, participants self-report what they’re eating during a specific 24-hour period that varies each week. Throughout the study, the researchers regularly take blood and stool samples, run tests, monitor participants’ feelings of anxiety and depression, and more.

“Food is such an opportunity because people are already eating three times every day,” says Kemp. “There aren’t really any negative outcomes or risks in this study—only the opportunity for a person’s life to be enhanced.”

The possible outcomes

The study hypothesizes that a healthy plant-based diet will improve participants’ inflammation levels, microbiome, and overall health. The diet is also expected to boost resilience, mood, and even spirituality.

While that all remains to be proven, both Kemp and Sud see a plant-based diet as a means of connecting those recovering from addiction to something bigger than themselves, creating a sense of purpose while fostering feelings of self-love and compassion.

“People on a plant-based diet can say, ‘I am a part of something bigger; my choices create positive change,’” says Sud, referencing better health, less animal cruelty, and curbed climate change. “There’s no better way to learn self-love than through food. The way I used to abuse myself has become the way I love myself the most.”

Fitness and recovery – another vital link

“When you’re in the throes of addiction, your schedule revolves around when you’re going to use,” says Adam Sud. “When you’re in recovery, there are a few things that can replace that model: food, your recovery program or acts of service, and exercise.”

The science on exercise and recovery shows promise. A Frontiers in Psychology review of studies, for example, found an inverse relationship between aerobic exercise and substance use.

During his recovery, Sud started walking on a treadmill five days a week. Eventually, he took up running. He says it helped him meditate, something that was a big part of his Buddhism-based recovery program. Although he initially struggled with seated meditation, Sud found each step and breath on his runs helped him stay present.

“Running is an activity that allowed me to practice self-love and compassion and see the amazing things my body could do,” he says. “I’ll be out there running for two or three hours and think, ‘Wow—I almost killed this body.’”

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