You’re eating a vegan diet. You may have lost weight. You may be working out more. You probably feel physically better because of the better quality of the food you are eating.
And it might be that feeling like you are taking control of your eating gives you a feeling of accomplishment as well.
But then your mom or a friend sends you an article about a supposed connection between veganism and depression. How can this be since it is so different from your own experience with veganism?
Could you be at risk of developing depression because of your vegan diet? And how do you know what foods will support not only great physical health as a vegan, but also great mental and emotional health?
There is a connection between mental illness and veganism, but not the one you may have heard about.
In fact, high quality studies of long-term vegans shows a positive correlation between veganism and all aspects of health, including a reduction in depression. That means, your vegan diet is the best thing you can do for your mental health.
IS THERE A CONNECTION BETWEEN VEGANISM AND DEPRESSION?
In Women’s Health magazine, author Jill Waldbieser posits that veganism and vegetarianism has “scary mental health risks” and may lead to a variety of problems like depression, OCD, and panic attacks.
However, according to Ginny Messina, registered dietician and author of many books on vegan health and wellness, the article was based on flawed research, including one study which had never been published and one which used incorrect terminology to indicate not people eating a true vegan or vegetarian diet, but a modified diet which still allowed poultry.
Evolutionary psychologist Dr. Emily Dean also questioned some of the basic elements of the studies cited by Waldbieser in an earlier critique of the study.
According to Dean, the study did not establish a causal link between vegetarianism and depression.
Indeed, because symptoms of depression often appear as early as age 10, the vegetarians in the study would have had pre-existing depression unrelated to their modified vegetarian diets.
CAN A VEGAN DIET FIGHT DEPRESSION?
Looking at other, less flawed studies, there is evidence that a vegan diet can in fact fight depression.
According to Messina, a small, cross-sectional study of Seventh Day Adventists who favor a vegetarian diet found that their diet was associated with better moods and, consequently, less depression.
In her article “The Lovely Hill,” author Emily Esfahani Smith talks about the community at the heart of the study and how their strict vegan and vegetarian diets have been linked to longer and happier lives and healthier lifestyles. In addition, the diet contributes to secondary benefits like better physical health, less Alzheimer’s, and other factors that can contribute to better mental health outcomes.
WHAT’S IMPORTANT FOR FIGHTING DEPRESSION AS A VEGAN?
Smith’s article brings up another factor in the ideal vegan diet eaten by members of the Adventist community in the study: the connection between their type of veganism and a Mediterranean-style diet.
The Mediterranean diet has long been the favored diet of many doctors and dieticians for its many physical and mental benefits, and the proximity of the Loma Linda Adventist community studied here to the Southern California agricultural traditions, which mimic some aspects of the Mediterranean, has resulted in a diet that is a fusion of vegan and Mediterranean traditions.
The following foods are part of any healthy diet, but are especially useful in allowing vegans to get all of the mental and physical benefits of both the Mediterranean and vegan ways of eating.
According to the Adventist study, one of the most important foods for everyone to consume is nuts, which are a big part of the Loma Linda Adventist diet. According to Dr. Gary Fraser, a Loma Linda School of Medicine doctor and professor, nuts have been found to contribute to good health and longevity in all populations, whether vegan or non-vegan.
In fact, consumption of nuts more than five times per week has been associated with longer and healthier lives in almost every study ever undertaken. This may be because of the Omega 3s often found in tree nuts like almonds, cashews, and walnuts.
Higher consumption of this fatty acid has been associated with statistically lower rates of mental health disorders and depression.
Tomatoes are a main staple of the Mediterranean diet and the Adventist one. They are associated with better health and wellness and a reduction in cancers and other illnesses.
Lycopene is the antioxidant primarily found in tomatoes and shown to have big benefits not only for physical health, but for mental health as well.
In fact, in many studies, a tomato a day was found to prevent or offset depressive symptoms.
NO PROCESSED FOODS
The Loma Linda Adventists not only favored fresh, healthful foods, they also were statistically less likely to consume heavily processed foods.
Baked goods, sodas, and other heavily processed foods have been found to have a profound impact on health, not only physical but mental and emotional.
And that impact has been found to be more pronounced in women’s health. In addition, women tend to suffer from depression statistically more often than men, so it is especially important for female vegans to avoid foods that might undermine their health.
People often read one article and think it is the last word on a topic, but a flawed study as the basis for the article can provide misleading conclusions. Contrary to Waldbieser and Women’s Health’s flawed conclusion, veganism is a diet that is good for both mind and body.
And when combined with a Mediterranean diet it is even more effective at fighting depression, reducing disease, and increasing longevity.