In early January, Netflix released You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment, a four-episode docuseries based on a Stanford University study exploring the effects of different diets on identical twins.
With more than 20 pairs of twins adopting opposing diets–vegan vs. omnivore–the study found that a vegan diet can be healthier than a healthy omnivorous diet in various ways. Meanwhile, other research on plant-based nutrition indicates vegan and vegetarian diets can also help people in treatment for mental health and substance abuse maintain sobriety.
You Are What You Eat Twin Nutrition Study’s Findings
The You Are What You Eat vegan vs. omnivore diet experiment was conducted over two four-week periods. During the first four weeks, researchers provided participants with pre-made meals. In the second four weeks, participants had to prepare their meals independently.
Quantitative Results of the Twin Study: Were the Vegans Healthier?
At the end of the experiment, the vegan twins recorded lower levels of cholesterol and TMAO–a compound the liver produces when a person consumes certain fish, red meat, or dairy products. According to the Cleveland Clinic, high levels of TMAO, or trimethylamine-N-oxide, can lead to high cholesterol and are linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke.
Generally, the Stanford researchers found that across the board, participants lost weight during the experiment. Twins on a vegan diet lost a combination of fat and muscle weight, while meat-eating twins lost more fat and less muscle than their plant-based siblings.
Qualitative Findings: Did the Vegans Feel Better?
On an observational level, vegan participants in the twin experiment reported having lower energy levels and not feeling full from the meals on their new nutrition plan. Stanford nutrition scientist and Professor of Medicine Dr. Christopher Gardner explained this phenomenon is common in vegans because they tend to consume less calorically dense diets.
Dr. Gardner explained how people who switch from eating meat and animal products to a plant-based diet tend to cut out meat and dairy. They then need to substitute those foods with wholesome proteins and carbohydrates (grains and beans, for example) to fuel their bodies adequately.
Wholesome nutrition does not need to be restrictive. People are more likely to switch to plant-based nutrition as vegan food options become more appealing to the masses. In general, a person has higher chances of adhering to a diet when they have access to plant-based food options and resources, which participants in the Standford twin study received.
Benefits of a Vegan Diet: Sobriety and Recovery
Like the twins of the You Are What You Eat study who were supported and educated throughout the eight-week experiment, people who are undergoing treatment for mental health, substance abuse, eating disorders, or addiction also require structure and support to achieve lasting recovery.
One of the many topics You Are What You Eat explored across its four episodes was the Standard American Diet (SAD). SAD is characterized by frequently consuming processed foods high in sugar, sodium, and fat.
Ultimately, the twin intervention study found that while a vegan diet is healthier than the standard American diet, an omnivorous diet is not necessarily unhealthy. Eating meat and dairy as an omnivore means consuming a wholesome variety of foods and being intentional about one’s dietary choices.
The INFINITE Study: Vegan Vs. Omnivore Diet in Recovery
Dr. Gardner’s findings scratch the surface of a quickly growing body of research on plant-based nutrition. In 2019, the INFINITE study began when recovering addict Adam Sud and a team of Stanford University researchers set out to understand the psychosocial and behavioral effects of a plant-based diet on substance abuse recovery.
During the INFINITE study, participants were observed over 10 weeks: the first 3 weeks during residential treatment and the last 7 weeks in outpatient treatment. Over this period, the intervention group was given a vegan diet, while the control group was assigned no dietary guidelines.
The Vegan Diet’s Role in Holistic Addiction Treatment
Overall, individuals on the vegan diet in the INFINITE study said it allowed them to recover holistically, describing the experience as a “full detox” for the mind, body, and spirit. Many responded to the experience in terms of its spiritual effects on them, finding a connection with something larger than themselves.
Participants also noted increased self-esteem and personal resilience, two heavily researched concepts integral to maintaining sobriety. Due to an increased sense of self-worth, individuals in the study reported feeling “protected” from relapse.
Moreover, some participants saw the plant-based diet as an exercise in discipline, helping them bounce back from cravings and triggering situations. In staying committed to their diets, individuals felt more confident in realizing their ability to stick with a challenging but healthy habit.
What About the Omnivores?
The control group in the INFINITE study found a different meaning in the dietary aspect of their recovery than their vegan counterparts. However, these participants indicated that the dietary aspect of their treatment helped them see recovery as a mental, physical, and spiritual journey.
Most members of the control group reported increased energy and focus. They said the level of nutrition they received in treatment enhanced their physical recovery and allowed them to focus on recovery and enjoy aspects of life outside of addiction.
Diet Influence and Adherence
All participants wanted to continue their healthy eating patterns regardless of their diet group. Researchers noted, however, that the vegan group maintained healthy dietary habits after inpatient treatment to a greater extent than the control group.
However, the control group’s diets did not benefit their recovery, as their statements illustrate. During the experiment, the control group consumed a healthier diet than the average person due to the recovery center’s existing nutritional standards.
A handful of participants modified their dietary habits after the You Are What You Eat twin intervention study. Instead of returning to their previous ways, most cut out red meat or switched to a vegetarian diet.
That said, both the Stanford INFINITE and twin intervention studies demonstrate that a wholesome, plant-based diet is beneficial beyond physical health and can be significantly supplementary to substance abuse and mental health treatment.
The Irreplaceable Role of Nutrition in Recovery
The INFINITE study found that most of those struggling with substance abuse, addiction, or another mental health condition do not receive proper nutrition, both in terms of calorie intake and nutritional content–even more so than the average American. Wholesome and balanced nutrition plays a crucial role in recovery, though.
When a person is recovering from a mental health or substance abuse disorder, they must be fuelled physically to focus on their spiritual, mental, and emotional healing. While in treatment, patients also need support and resources to help them continue healthy dietary habits when they return to their everyday lives.
Seek Wholesome Recovery at TRUE Addiction and Behavioral Health
At TRUE Addiction and Behavioral Health, we understand that alongside recovery, you need the tools to cope with life once you leave treatment. With a holistic approach to mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation, we are here to nourish your mind, body, and soul with the highest quality of recovery education.
If you or a loved one are looking to overcome addiction, don’t wait to start your recovery journey. Contact us today by calling our 24/7 helpline at (615) 527-8610 or emailing Info@TrueAddictionBH.org.