Nutritional psychiatry is one of the fields of medicine that has been inspired by the importance of diet in mental health. In essence, the foods we consume affect all aspects of our health, especially our mental health. For example, it has been demonstrated in several recent research analyses, looking at multiple studies, that what one eats is linked to the risk of depression.
Dietary patterns characterised by a high intake of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy products, antioxidants, and low intakes of animal foods were associated with a lower risk of depression. Conversely, a dietary pattern characterised by high consumption of red and/or processed meat, refined grains, sweets, high-fat dairy products, butter, potatoes, and high-fat gravy and a low intake of fruits and vegetables is associated with an increased risk of depression .
Consequently, a recent study contradicts a popular assumption by asserting that vegetarians experience depressive episodes twice as often as meat eaters.
A Vegetarian Diet = Depression? Important Points From The Study
- The Journal of Affective Disorders published a study this month that found vegetarians (and vegans) were twice as likely to experience depressive episodes as meat eaters .
- The study examined 14,216 adults in Brazil between the ages of 35 and 74. Food frequency questionnaires were used to determine whether people followed a meatless diet, and diagnostic tools were used to determine whether people suffered from depression.
- After analysing the data, the researchers concluded that meatless diets had twice as many depressive episodes as those consuming meat.
- The relationship between diet and depression was independent of socioeconomic factors and lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity levels, and body mass index (BMI).
- The study was not entirely convincing, however, and researchers worldwide have stated that the study was designed to analyse data rather than conduct a controlled experiment, making it impossible to conclude whether a meatless diet causes depression.
- Specifically, the researchers found that poor diet quality was somewhat associated with higher rates of depression. Still, it did not fully explain the association.
“The authors note that it’s currently estimated that 5-14% of Brazilians currently follow a vegetarian style diet, so this sample may not be reflective of all vegetarians in Brazil either,” said a researcher who was not part of the study .
Can Meatless Diets Cause Depression?
In light of the above, what might explain the link between vegetarianism and depression? Is there some non-nutritional mechanism that may explain the connection? It has been suggested that depression may be associated with an increased likelihood of becoming a vegetarian rather than the other way around .
Reason 1: It is common for depression to cause feelings of guilt as well as a tendency to dwell on negative thoughts. Animals are treated cruelly in meat production. The upsetting truth of slaughterhouses and factory farming may be more likely to be reflected on by depressed people, and they may feel guilty about their role in creating that demand .
Reason 2: It is also possible that forgoing meat may cause depression through other means than nutritional deficiencies. Even if no “happy nutrient” is lacking in a vegetarian diet, consuming meat may cause depression in other ways . For example, a vegetarian diet may affect one’s relationships with others and involvement in social activities and sometimes may be associated with teasing or other forms of social exclusion .
So, what does this mean?
There are several possible explanations for the association between vegetarianism and depression. However, the results of this study also suggest that vegetarian nutrition does not contribute to depression.
The vegetarian social experience may contribute to depression, depression may increase the likelihood of becoming vegetarian, or vegetarianism and depression may be influenced by a third variable, such as exposure to violent imagery of the meat industry.
On A Final Note…
Furthermore, it is possible that neither vegetarianism nor depression causes the other but that some third factor causes both. This could be any number of characteristics or experiences that are associated with both vegetarianism and depression.
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Story first published: Monday, October 10, 2022, 15:00 [IST]