Can a Whole-Foods, Plant-Based Diet Improve Depression?

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A picture of several ripe tomatoes. Credit to flickr.com user Frédérique Voisin-Demery
. Used with permission under a Creative Commons license.

When speaking of dieting advice, Michael Pollen put it best: “Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But not all diets are about dress size. The challenge in eating healthy is even more of a challenge when it comes to managing your mental health. I’ve already looked at How to Follow a Mediterranean Diet to Help Bipolar Depression. But what about different diets?

The whole-foods, plant-based diet (WFPBD) has gained traction in nutritional psychiatry circles in the past few years. Proponents claim that the diet can reduce the risk of or even reverse chronic diseases. But can vegetarian, vegan, or whole-foods, plant-based diets help depression?

That depends on what studies you look at. There have been a few studies that imply vegan diets can help you manage depression. But there are some other studies that imply the opposite. Few people have studied this subject, so finding answers is a lot of piecing together and guessing. The studies that have been done suffer from small sample sizes.

An oft-cited German study which examined diet and mental health in a group of about 4100 subjects said that vegetarians were 15% more likely to suffer from depression. But the study also said that these people tended to start their vegetarian diets after already developing depression. The conclusion? Plant-based diets did not cause depression, but people who were depressed were more likely to choose a plant-based diet. This was the biggest study on the subject to my knowledge.

These results have been replicated in other studies. Another UK study found that 350 vegans/vegetarians (out of a subset of 9700 men) were more likely to be depressed than those eating meat. But the researchers caution readers that correlation is not causation; these men may have been depressed before adopting their diets.

Interestingly, research shows that plant-based diets may actually have a protective effect on mood. A small study of Seventh-day Adventists found that a vegetarian diet was associated with better moods. A second study, also small, found that moods improved when people stopped eating meat. New moms in Austria and women in Iran who ate vegetarian diets also enjoyed better moods.

Research also points to an alarming trend in meat eaters: women with a high-inflammatory diet, including red meats and processed foods, were 41% more likely to suffer from depression. Diets high in sugar have been linked to depression as well. And a recent study from the American Journal of Health Promotion found that vegan diets improved the levels of anxiety and depression in 36 participants.

This sounds scary, but plant-based diets aren’t without their problems as well. There are some good reasons that people eating a plant-based diet might be prone to depression. If you want to follow this diet, here are some limitations to be aware of: Deficiencies in omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B12, and folate are all linked to depression, and vegans and vegetarians might eat fewer of these supplements than omnivores. A lack of iron and zinc, two minerals most easily found in meat, is also associated with depression. Additionally, vegetarians may eat more omega-6 fatty acids, which increase inflammation and are correlated with depression. People eating a plant-based diet may also consume higher levels of pesticides, provided they’re not eating organic foods.

If you eat a vegetarian diet and are suffering from depression, talk to your doctor about supplementing your diet. B12 specifically is only found in meat. According to a recent study, depression was reduced up to 50% in people who started supplementing with B6, B12, and folic acid.

Of course, it is irresponsible to say that people are depressed because of what they eat. Depression is usually a chemical imbalance in the body, especially bipolar depression, and cannot be blamed solely on what we consume. It is also important to note that while diet can improve mental health, treating depression sometimes requires medication or therapy. Seeking adequate treatment for mental health problems carries an unfortunate stigma, and it shouldn’t. There is no shame in trying to live a healthy life, where you can be the best you can be. If you feel like diet and exercise is not enough to treat your depression, then talk to your doctor.

I wish you well.

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