The Role of Nutrition Education and Dietary Changes in Substance Use Disorder Treatment

An Analysis of Unidine’s Partnerships for Rehabilitation Facilities

Overview: Substance use disorders

A balanced, nutritious diet is a critical component of health and well-being for everyone but is especially critical for individuals recovering from substance use disorders. In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that every year, worldwide, 3.3 million deaths occur as a result of harmful alcohol consumption, and 15.3 million people using drugs in a harmful way (1).

With substance use disorders on the rise as a prevalent public health concern, it is essential to examine treatment strategies in a holistic manner that combines multiple therapies with enhanced nutritional support.

Health impacts of substance addiction

Drug and alcohol abuse can significantly impair healthy digestion processes, leading to constipation, diarrhea, indigestion and decreased appetite. Chronic substance addiction damages the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, and disrupts or completely blocks the body from absorbing essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids such as thiamine, calcium, riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, vitamins A, B1, B6, C, D, E, and K, magnesium, and zinc (2). Individuals suffering from alcohol addiction may feel full from alcohol, which is high in calories but completely lacking in nutrients. Opiate or stimulant addiction results in individuals often forgoing eating due to suppressed appetite, poor food preparation skills, and environments, and using money to purchase substances instead of food.

These combined factors contribute to malnutrition, which directly impacts the neurotransmitter functions that are crucial to healthy brain activities that control mood and behavior. Without adequate nutrients, the brain is unable to differentiate between cravings for food and drugs or alcohol, making it difficult to overcome the initial withdrawal symptoms during detoxification, as well as ultimately achieving success in long-term substance abstinence and recovery.

Malnutrition and dietary imbalances associated with substance addiction cause significant impacts to physical and mental health and can contribute to the increased long-term risk of developing other diseases such as liver disease, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, mood disorders, and lowered immune function (3).

Nutrition’s role in substance addiction recovery

Providing nutritional knowledge and incorporating healthy eating habits into a holistic treatment approach at rehabilitation programs helps to support recovery by restoring physical and mental health, and reducing the likelihood of relapse.

Studies have shown that patients in recovery have limited knowledge of dietary recommendations and nutritional guidelines. Thus, they tend to consume less than the recommended minimum amount of vegetables, fruits and grains, and are more likely to consume sweets or foods with low nutritional value (4). Introducing nutritional education during the initial stages of the recovery process provides crucial dietary support that helps patients adjust from a diet based on junk food and fast food to a more well-rounded diet.

During the initial detoxification phase, patients suffering from malnutrition may experience discomfort when eating and difficulty digesting foods due to damaged GI tracts. To best support their needs, a smoothie or shake made with fresh vegetables and fruits, and dietary supplements can deliver nutritional benefits with comfort and ease.

The Mediterranean diet is an optimal plan to support substance addiction recovery. Plentiful in healthy proteins from lean meat and fish, fresh vegetables and fruits, whole grains, spices and herbs, nuts, and extra virgin olive oils, this diet helps to reincorporate macronutrients and micronutrients into the body (5). It is also an excellent source of amino acids that fuel the brain functions needed to overcome substance cravings and achieve long-term recovery.

Unidine’s recipe to recovery

Unidine’s team of creative culinary experts and over 160 clinical dietitians stays current with the latest clinical evidence to develop programs that facilitate healthy food choices, promote nutritional education, and improve population health. As an industry leader in food and dining services with extensive experience in partnering with rehabilitation facilities, Unidine melds culinary creativity, service excellence, and evidence-based research to deliver the Recipe to Recovery:

  • Reintroduce macro and micronutrients that support healthy brain functions to overcome withdrawal
  • Reduce likelihood of relapse by curbing cravings
  • Restore physical and mental health
  • Reinforce with nutritional education to support healthy decision-making

Our four-ingredient recipe is easily integrated into your community’s existing dining management operations, and is designed to enhance your treatment therapies and programs, and boost patient outcomes.


  1. Nabipour, S., Ayu Said, M., & Hussain Habil, M. (2014). Burden and Nutritional Deficiencies in Opiate Addiction- Systematic Review Article. Iranian Journal of Public Health,43(8), 1022-1032. Retrieved May 3, 2018, from
  2. Jeynes, K. D., & Gibson, E. L. (2017). The importance of nutrition in aiding recovery from substance use disorders: A review. Drug and Alcohol Dependence,179, 229-239. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2017.07.006.
  3. Sason, A., Adelson, M., Herzman-Harari, S., & Peles, E. (2018). Knowledge about nutrition, eating habits and weight reduction intervention among methadone maintenance treatment patients. Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment,86, 52-59. doi:10.1016/j.jsat.2017.12.008.
  4. Stickel, A., Rpohdemann, M., Landes, T., Engel, K., Banas, R., Heinz, A., & Müller, C. A. (2016). Changes in Nutrition-Related Behaviors in Alcohol-Dependent Patients After Outpatient Detoxification: The Role of Chocolate. Substance Use & Misuse,51(5), 545-552. doi:10.3109/10826084.2015.1117107.
  5. Schneider, M., Levant, B., Reichel, M., Gulbins, E., Kornhuber, J., & Muller, C. P. (2017). Lipids in psychiatric disorders and preventive medicine. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews,76, b, 336-362. Retrieved May 3, 2018, from