Science

Vegetarians are more likely to suffer from depression, study claims

Eating more greens may give you ‘the blues’, study claims… but experts have beef with the research

  • Vegetarians suffered twice as many depressive episodes as meat-eaters 
  • Researchers claim it could be because of the ‘social experience’ veggies endure
  • But they admitted it may also be because more depressed people turn to the diet

Vegetarians may be more prone to depression, research suggests. 

A study found people who give up eating meat have twice as many depressive episodes as those who stick to animal products.

Brazilian experts say it might be because of the ‘social experience’ veggies endure, such as being teased for their choice of diet.

But it’s not necessarily forgoing meat that’s to blame, they admitted. Instead, it may be the case that depressed people turn to a veggie diet.

Or, it could be that the link can be explained by a separate factor that links the two together.

This may include ‘exposure to violent meat industry imagery’, according to Dr Chris Bryant, a psychologist at the University of Bath.

Vegetarians may be more prone to depression than those who eat meat, research suggests

Downsides of giving up meat

Switching to a completely plant-based diet could leave you tired or breaking out in acne, dieticians have warned.  

Not eating or drinking animal products could leave you missing out on key vitamins like B12 as well as proteins. 

A lack of vitamin B12, which is in found milk and eggs, can lead to fatigue or tiredness and negatively impact your mental health. 

Vitamin D is another nutrient found mainly in animal products, like oily fish, that those on vegan diets can be deficient in.

A vitamin D deficiency can lead to issues with bone development and cause pain. 

Not getting enough protein, which we get from dairy products, fish, eggs and meat can stunt growth in children and also lead to acne breakouts.

A lack of iron, found in red meat and liver, can lead to anaemia, causing people to feel tired and have heart palpitations.

Iodine, mainly found in seafood, is another nutrient known to be lacking in vegan diets and is important in maintaining a health metabolism. 

Plant-based diets can include all of these mentioned nutrients but people need to carefully manage what they eat, or take supplements, to ensure they get enough. 

This is especially true if people are switching to a vegan diet after primarily getting these nutrients from animal products.   

But another risk is the false perception that vegan products are inherently healthier than non-vegan options.

A MailOnline analysis of meat-free vegan alternative foods found a significant number contained more salt, sugar and fat than the product they were meant to replace. 

Writing for The Conversation, he added: ‘Preventing cruelty to animals is the most commonly cited reason vegetarians give for avoiding meat.

‘Documentaries like Dominion and Earthlings that depict the cruelty cannot readily be described as feelgood films. 

‘One can easily imagine that a person who consumes this kind of media would become both vegetarian and, especially when most people choose to look the other way, depressed.’

A vegetarian diet does not necessarily require people eat more vegetables. It merely means they avoid meat, and can be equally unhealthy to omnivorous diets if high in trans fats and starchy carbohydrates. 

The study was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

Researchers tracked the eating habits of 14,216 adults in Brazil aged 35 to 74 using food questionnaires.

Brazil is famed for its meat-heavy diet and, despite recent increases in vegetarianism in the country, just 82 of those surveyed did not eat meat.

They compared this to the amount of depressive episodes — periods of low mood or loss of interest in most activities.

This was measured using interviews with trained psychiatrists, who asked them to recall how they had been feeling.

After factoring in lifestyle factors like smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity and body mass index (BMI), results showed vegetarians had 2.37 times the number of episodes of meat eaters.

Even when accounting for nutritional differences between the diet — including calories, fats, carbohydrates and protein — the difference between meat and non-meat eaters remained. 

Writing in the journal, the researchers from Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul said: ‘Depressive episodes are more prevalent in individuals who do not eat meat, independently of socioeconomic and lifestyle factors.

‘Nutrient deficiencies do not explain this association. The nature of the association remains unclear, and longitudinal data are needed to clarify causal relationship.’

And experts criticised the study, arguing it could not establish if vegetarianism actually caused depression because it was not a controlled experiment.

Mary Mosquera-Cochran, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center who was not involved in the study, said the findings may only apply to Brazilian populations.

She said: ‘The researchers found that diet quality was somewhat associated with higher rates of depression, but it did not fully explain the association.

‘The authors note that it’s currently estimated that 5 to 14 per cent of Brazilians currently follow a vegetarian style diet, so this sample may not be reflective of all vegetarians in Brazil either.’ 

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