In this blog post, we will understand the link between veganism and depression. We will explore scientific research for both sides – whether veganism leads to depression or not. Finally, we will see the speculated reasons for the studies.
A vegan diet is a purely plant-based one, excluding any and all animal products, such as meat and dairy. A vegetarian diet is one that is mostly plant-based but includes dairy. Some vegetarians even consume fish or eggs.
Veganism and Depression: What is the Link?
The link between veganism and depression is an unclear and complicated one. There is much scientific research needed to support any associations between the two. Let us look at what research says as we explore both supportive and contradictory evidence regarding the association of veganism and depression.
Symptoms of Depression
You may be suffering from depression if you experience any of the following symptoms for a period of at least two weeks. These symptoms include:
- Fatigue and a lack of energy to engage in fundamental activities;
- A depressed mood or intense sadness;
- Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, helplessness, and emptiness;
- A lack of pleasure in pursuing activities that were enjoyable before;
- Social withdrawal;
- Changes in appetite and weight;
- Sleep disturbances; and
- Suicidal or self-harm ideations or attempts
In case you are experiencing any of these symptoms, consult your mental health professional. If you have any suicidal or self-harm ideations, contact your national hotline immediately. Find the hotline for your region at www.suicide.org.
What Research Says – Supportive Evidence
Excluding Food Groups and Higher Depression
A study in 2018 explored the effect of excluding several food groups on depressive symptoms. The researchers reported that vegetarians who eat fish and those we consume dairy and eggs were most likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.
The report mainly found that not consuming any one of the food groups, including but not restricted to meat, was related to depression. Those who excluded at least three of the four animal-based groups (i.e., dairy, red meat, fish, and poultry) were almost 2.5 times more likely to develop depression.
A German study found that vegetarians were more likely than meat-eaters to suffer from depression in the last month, year, and even across their lifespan.
Plant-based Diets and Higher Depression
Another study in 2018 reported a relation between plant-based diets and depression among men in the UK. The participants were partners of pregnant women. There were almost ten thousand participants, among which only a little more than 300 were vegetarians, and around 40 were vegans. Those following vegetarianism or veganism tended to score higher on the depression scale.
Varied Diets and Depression
A study in 2014 conducted among Austrian participants included an equal number of vegetarians, consumers of mostly meat products, those consumed relatively less meat, and individuals who ate fruits and vegetables primarily and ate little meat. The researchers found that vegetarians were at almost two times greater risk of developing psychological conditions like anxiety or depression.
Depression in Women
When 140 women and their diets were examined, it was found that those who consumed either less than or more than the advised intake of meat every week were more likely to exhibit depressive symptoms.
What Research Says – Contradictory Evidence
No Difference in Depression
A study in 2012 reported that the psychological well-being of the vegans, vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians who were studied had no difference in scores regarding their depression.
Higher Anxiety and Stress in Meat-Eaters
Another study in 2012 reported no significant difference between vegans, vegetarians, and meat-eaters. In fact, they said that meat-eaters were more likely to score higher on anxiety and stress.
Lower Depression in Vegetarians
A study in 2010 found that vegetarians scored lower on depression, anxiety, and stress as compared to individuals who consume meat.
A few sources have pointed out that some of the studies indicating plant-based diets like vegetarianism and veganism, leading to higher levels of depression may involve personal bias. The studies also included way fewer vegans and vegetarians when compared to meat-eaters. Additionally, one study was partly funded by the beef industry.
Abstinence from Meat Is Good for Overall Wellbeing
There is literature that shows that meat is useful for your physical health as it lowers the risk of cardiovascular problems, diabetes, obesity and weight regulation, and even cancer. It also has mental health benefits that found that there is a lower prevalence of anxiety and depression.
Vegans and Vegetarians are Healthy
Depression is one of the common symptoms of eating disorders. One study attempted to find out if vegan or vegetarian diets played a role in the onset and perpetuation of eating disorders. They found that people who consume semi-vegetarian diets are more likely to experience symptoms of eating disorders. In contrast, complete vegans and vegetarians were found to be the healthiest in terms of eating habits and weight.
It is essential to understand that correlations and associations do not indicate causation. That is to say that although there may be a link between two variables, it is not established that one causes another. With that said, let us understand why some studies report supportive evidence of a link between vegetarianism or veganism and depression.
Researchers indicate that the lack of vitamin B12 and iron in plant-based diets could lead to depressive moods. Some studies support that inadequacy of vitamin B12 can cause an increased risk of depression while increasing B12 levels can relieve depressive symptoms.
Iron, however, is found in beans, leafy greens, and nuts. Legumes are also rich in iron, which could clarify why depressive symptoms are more likely to develop in vegetarians who do not consume enough legumes.
Most people automatically assume that a plant-based diet is healthy in and of itself. However, this assumption is untrue. A healthy, well-balanced diet contains the required nutrients and excludes processed foods, trans fats, saturated fats, and refined sugars.
Moreover, coconut milk, a commonly found ingredient in vegan diets, entails high levels of saturated fat and minimal protein. Frozen meat alternatives tend to have high amounts of salt, processed oils, and preservatives while being low on vitamin B12, protein, and iron.
Further, plant-based diets alter your brain chemistry, which could cause depressive moods. The German study cited above reported that almost 35% of participants with depression had begun their vegetarian diet before they developed depression.
There is a possibility that personality traits could play a role in the development of depression in relation to diets. Women are at two times the greater risk for developing depression than men. There are also more women than men who consume vegetarian or vegan diets.
There is a possibility that there are specific personality traits that find plant-based diets appealing. Moreover, it has been noted that those following vegetarianism or veganism tend to be more socially isolated. They may get fewer dinner invitations or may not prefer going out with meat-eaters.
Furthermore, it can be emotionally and psychologically exhausting as most people who choose to be vegans tend to do it for moral and ethical reasons. They are more aware of the animal and environmental cruelties as compared to meat-eaters. Such activism can get exhausting, leading to the development of depressive symptoms.
In this blog post, we saw the association between veganism and depression, which still appears to be unclear due to inadequate scientific research. We looked into the existing literature on this link or lack thereof. We outlined a few plausible reasons for those studies suggesting a relation between veganism and higher depression rates.
Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.
Frequently Asked Questions: Veganism and Depression
Does veganism cause mental illness?
No, veganism does not cause mental illness. However, a diet that is not balanced and entails nutritional inadequacy can lead to psychological conditions. A well-balanced vegan diet includes superfoods like nuts and grains that boost mental wellness.
Can veganism cause shifts in the mood?
Veganism and vegetarianism are reported to make people happier than meat-eating. They sometimes score lower on depression, anxiety, and stress scales than those who consume meat.
Why do some vegans appear older than they are?
Protein is one of the essential nutrients in our diet. It is also vital for skin elasticity. If a vegan diet – or any diet – does not contain enough protein, individuals could appear older than they are.
Who has a longer lifespan between vegans and meat-eaters?
Vegans and vegetarians tend to live longer lives than meat-eaters. Moreover, vegans and vegetarians also experience fewer well-being concerns.
What are the potential side-effects of going vegan?
Consuming a vegan diet needs to be done appropriately. Otherwise, you may experience deficiencies in iron, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. If there is a vitamin B12 deficiency and is left unchecked, it could cause irrevocable neurological concerns.
Why do vegans experience more happiness than meat-eaters?
Vegans tend to experience more happiness than meat-eaters as a vegan diet could increase serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood regulation and is commonly seen at low levels in depression.
Can vegan diet help with anxiety?
Yes, a vegan diet could help with anxiety. Veganism could improve overall mental wellbeing and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Do vegans experience gastric problems?
Vegans can experience gastric problems as their diet tends to be rich in fiber, causing intestinal gas. However, the pungency of their flatulence is minimized or eliminated due to the lack of animal products.
Can veganism cause the aging process to slow down?
Yes, there is evidence that veganism can slow down the aging process as vegans were found to have less decrease in telomerase (gene-produced enzyme implicated in aging) activity and longer telomeres.
Did Albert Einstein follow veganism?
Albert Einstein was a vegetarian in the last couple of years of his life. There is evidence of Einstein consuming meat even as an adult.
What is the mean life expectancy of a vegan?
Although there is not much research on a vegan or a vegetarian’s life expectancy, it is estimated that vegetarian men live almost ten times longer than meat-eaters. In contrast, while women vegetarians live more than six times longer than women who consume meat.
Are meat-eaters stronger than vegans?
Meat-eaters were found to be healthier than vegans in one study, despite the latter consuming less alcohol and tobacco and more physically active. However, there is also evidence that a vegan diet is physically beneficial in preventing various disorders.
What is a source of vitamin B12 in a vegan diet?
Plant-based alternatives for milk, specific soy foods, and cereals are sources of vitamin B12 in a vegan diet. Moreover, there are B12 supplements available in markets.
What we recommend for depression
If you are suffering from depression then ongoing professional counselling may be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you live a more fulfilling life.