We know that a human’s mental health impacts the physical health and quality of life – and vice versa. Surely, you have heard of the so-called body-mind-connection, giving our body the nutrients it needs to be healthy, plays a big role in this.
The number of vegetarians and vegans has increased significantly over the years. Let’s keep in mind that plant-based does not necessarily mean vegan or vegetarian, however, the diet is mainly composed of plants.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether plant-based diets are healthy for humans. Further research is required but what do we already know about the connection between plant-based diets and mental health?
Vitamins & mental health
Various studies show that our diet can be one of the factors in developing or not developing depression. Plant-based, especially vegan, diets are rich in vegetables, fruits, grains, seeds, and nuts – high-quality foods that are linked to a lower risk of depression.
Other studies show the opposite: People following a vegan diet may be at higher risk of developing depression.
This might be the case if the plant-based diet is not well thought out, meaning: a human may experience a lack of certain nutrients when following a vegan diet. Let’s have a closer look at three important nutrients that have been mentioned in research about the connection between plant-based diets and mental health:
- Vitamin B12
It aids brain function and memory and can help prevent dementia. Low levels of B12 are associated with depression. The issue with B12 in plant-based diets is that it is hardly found outside of animal products like meat – and this strengthens the debate about plant-based diets causing depression.
- Vitamin B6
It plays an important role in brain function just like B12 and can be seen as an assistant with depression and fatigue. Luckily, vitamin B6 can be found in citrus fruits, chickpeas, and avocados for example. Vegans have been found to have better levels of B6 than meat eaters, in fact.
At some point during our lives we have probably all been told that our blood is lacking iron and therefore, we feel exhausted all the time. The good news is, it can be found in many vegetables and nuts.
Animals & mental health
Another connection between plant-based diets and mental health can be found in caring about our planet. We know about the impact meat production has on the earth, and we also know how much nature impacts our mental health positively – breaking the cycle, eating less meat, and thereby contributing to a healthier environment can put our minds at rest.
On another note, people following vegan and vegetarian diets live with the awareness that no animals have to die for their nutrition – they have often decided to stop eating meat based on their love for animals.
Having said this, people with depression for example tend to feel better when living with an emotional support animal. This might bring a strong connection to animals in general, including those we usually eat. Trying out a plant-based diet is then often considered a good thing to try.
Eating behaviour & mental health
As mentioned earlier, if we don’t fuel our bodies well, our minds will be affected negatively. Having said that, unhealthy diets impact our mood – living in a bad or low mood for some time increases the risk of developing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
People diagnosed with anxiety often tend to prefer unhealthy, processed foods that might boost their mood for a short time, however, limit the intake of vitamins from fruit and vegetables in the long run which are required for our brain to function and be in a good place as mentioned above.
Fruits and vegetable intake is essential for brain function and emotional well-being. Plant-based diets are not proven to cure mental health conditions and it is important to ensure supplementing certain vitamins when quitting meat intake, especially B12.
If you are unsure whether a plant-based diet is right for you or wish to try it out, reach out for a consultation with a dietician.
If you think that you can benefit from professional support on this issue you can reach out here.
Franziska Richter is a transcultural counsellor with the Willingness Team, offering counselling sessions to individuals and couples. She is particularly interested in sexuality, relationship issues, trauma and general mental health.