Recent trends in research have alluded to the possibility that our diets and our psyches are far more connected than we once believed.
Adam Sud, the lead researcher of The INFINITE Study, has dedicated his career to understanding the relationship between nutrition and mental health. The study, which found that a person’s dietary pattern can significantly impact their mental health, was born out of Sud’s own struggles with addiction and mental health issues. He discovered that making changes to his diet helped improve his mental health, and he now hopes to help others do the same.
Sud was introduced to the impact different diets have on mental health in 2010, when he attended a 7-day immersive retreat hosted by Rip Esselstyn, a New York Times best-selling author who extols the transformative power of a whole food, plant-based diet.
Although he didn’t take it seriously then, when he checked into rehab for his opiate and stimulant dependence two years later, Sud built his recovery around the ideas he learned from this event and found that it had a profound impact on the efficacy of his rehabilitation.
“I entered rehab the sickest and most depressed I had ever been in my life. Within a year, I had become the healthiest and most connected version of myself I had ever been,” Sud said about his experience with plant-based diets.
During a health and nutrition conference in 2018, where he was a speaker, Sud met Dean and Ayesha Sherzai, leading authorities on cognitive longevity and the prevention and reversal of dementia, who shared his passion for studying the effect a nutrient-dense diet had on substance-use recovery outcomes. Soon, the three of them, along with researcher Dr. Tara Kemp, put together a team to create and run The INFINITE Study.
The INFINITE Study was the first controlled trial to investigate the impact of nutrition and nutrition education on early addiction recovery outcomes within a treatment center setting. Standard treatment for substance use disorders rarely incorporates a dietary intervention. The purpose of this research was to explore how nutrition influences early recovery outcomes. Participants self-selected into the 10-week treatment (whole food, plant-based diet) or control group (standard treatment center diet). Both received weekly nutrition education lessons to complement the diet.
“We found that at 10 weeks, the treatment group experienced statistically significant increases in resilience and self-esteem compared to the control group. This is valuable as these two variables are powerful factors in recovery and the findings may make a plant-based diet advantageous in recovery,” Sud explained.
Given that the treatment group of the study, who were all required to follow a whole food, plant-based diet, did not report negative outcomes for even a single variable, Sud and his team hope that more effort will be put into understanding when and how diet-based treatment programs can have beneficial effects on the recovery process of those with Substance Use Disorders.
“I want to be a part of helping people take charge of their lives with simple, repeatable, and obvious decisions that aren’t exclusive to those who can afford it,” Sud said. “My hope is that we can start to take nutrition and its role in mental health seriously and we can start to implement its value accurately into the current models of recovery.”
Sud also addressed some common misconceptions about nutrition, including the belief that anything less than perfect is a failure when it comes to your diet. He emphasized that it’s not the content of a person’s diet on a day-to-day basis that matters, but rather the quality of their dietary pattern over time and the context in which it fits.
When asked about plant-based diets and their potential link to depression, Sud pointed out that while some research has suggested a connection, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation. He emphasized the importance of considering the whole dietary pattern and context rather than focusing on individual foods or nutrients.
“The purported link between plant-based diets and depression is based on a cross-section study out of Brazil that looked at semi-vegetarians, people who do include small amounts of animal products,” said Sud. “One of the biggest issues with this study is that they didn’t identify which came first, the diet or the depression. Maybe people who suffer from depression are likely to adopt a plant-based diet after the fact.”
Sud points out that other studies that actually did consider which came first (diet or depression) found that a decline in mental health typically occurs before adopting a vegetarian diet. And, when vegans, vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians are separately analyzed in meta-analyses, vegans and vegetarian diets don’t appear to be significantly associated with depression.
For those struggling with physical or mental health issues, Sud recommends starting with fiber for physical health, “fiber is the one aspect of nutrition that is unanimously agreed upon to be a benefit to your health, meaning the more you include in your dietary pattern, the greater the beneficial impact on your health for the majority of people.”
For mental health, seek support. “Seek out a support group, a therapist, a psychiatrist, someone who can help you figure out the next necessary step and remember that you are not broken because you feel, you feel because you are whole,” said Sud.
He also encouraged people to be patient, curious, and kind to themselves, and to never stop trying to improve their health and well-being.
“I know what it’s like to struggle with health issues and I know how hard it can feel,” Sud said. “Let me be the one to tell you, it’s worth it. You are worth it. I am rooting for you.”