Posted by Helen Sands on May 27, 2015
The high fiber and nutrient content of vegan and vegetarian diets includes a long list of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals. This means that these plant-based diets are very strongly associated with a very wide range of health benefits. A healthy and varied vegan diet is typically lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, too. The combination of these nutritional profiles mean that vegans tend to have lower blood pressure and blood cholesterol, and have a healthier body weight, than people who eat animal products. In addition, vegans and vegetarians have a decreased risk of several types of cancer, including many cancers of the digestive system. However, while the physical benefits of a vegan diet are well known, the mental health benefits aren't necessarily common knowledge. The fact is, a vegan diet can improve mental clarity and may contribute to improved mental health too.
Veganism Improves Stress Management and Mood and Reduces Anxiety
Given that around 25% of American adults suffer from a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, or stress-related problems, wide-ranging studies that explore the factors contributing to mood disorders and other mental illnesses often turn up some surprising data. One such study, published in Nutrition Journal in 2010, looked at the mental health and mood of vegetarians and meat eaters. This study found that vegetarian study participants had healthier mood profiles, and were less likely to report depression, than study participants who ate meat.
Another study, also published in Nutrition Journal, studied a group of people who were daily meat or chicken eaters, and then switched to a vegetarian diet. In this particular study, the participants reported improved mood and less stress after just two weeks on a vegetarian diet. The researchers who carried out the study suggested that the reason for the mood improvements was to do with the elimination of long chain fatty acids from the diet, in particular one called arachidonic acid, which is present in meat and is associated with depressive symptoms. While this study was too short, at just two weeks, to produce conclusive results, it's highly suggestive of a link, especially in light of the fact that other aspects of the diet can influence the mood.
Of course, this doesn't automatically mean that eating meat and animal products makes people depressed, but it does mean that a healthy vegan diet that includes a wide range of vegetables, nuts and seeds, and other whole unprocessed foods, may help to improve your overall mood and mental health.
Veganism and Eating Disorders
When it comes to mental health, one issue that often crops up in relation to dietary concerns is of eating disorders, and how a vegan or vegetarian diet impacts on people who are affected by anorexia or bulimia. There's one point of view, for example, that suggests that adopting a vegan or vegetarian diet when recovering from an eating disorder is just another way to restrict the diet, but while this may be a factor for some people, it's definitely not the case for everyone. In fact, many people who suffer from bulimia and anorexia find that embracing a plant-based vegan diet helps them move forward with their recovery in a more positive and permanently healthy way. For these people, turning to veganism isn't about restricting the diet and focusing on food in an unhealthy way, it's about giving their food choices personal, political, and ethical significance. This decision can be very healing, and can even free someone in recovery from the need to focus on restricting calories.
Another aspect of this is that while veganism is at least partially about ethics for most people, it's also about appreciating and honoring their bodies by fueling them with food that's healthy as well as ethical.
Alyson English. “New Study: Vegetarians are Happier than Meat Eaters.” Accessed May 26, 2015.
Andrew Weil. “Can Going Vegan Relieve Depression?” Accessed May 26, 2015.
Bulimia “Treating eating disorders." Accessed May 26, 2015.
Choosing Raw. “Green Recovery.” Accessed May 26, 2015.
Harvard Health Publications. “Becoming a Vegetarian.” Accessed May 26, 2015.
Living Green. “Eating Meat Affects Mental Health: Vegetarians Have Better Moods and Less Stress.” Accessed May 26, 2015.
Winston J. Craig. “Health Effects of Vegan Diets.” In The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Accessed May 26, 2015.