Often we hear our elders and nutritionists say, “What you eat, you become.” While this is true when it comes to our physical health, does it have any relevance to our mental health as well? Does consuming a vegan or plant-based diet have any impact on our mental health? Let’s find out.
Almost 8% of Americans over the age of 12 suffer from depression. And that’s not just the case in the USA; nearly 280 million people globally have depression (including 5.0% among adults and 5.7% among adults over 60 years). This shows that mental health is a major issue worldwide. Busy & unhealthy lifestyles, stressful life events, and genetics are some major causes of depression. Unfortunately, depression is a major roadblock to accomplishing even the day-to-day tasks and can promote chronic illnesses or worsen existing health problems.
However, the good news is that dietary changes can positively impact mood without needing medication.
Let’s dig deeper.
The Evidence – What Does The Research Reveal?
Several research have supported the fact that eating vegan or plant-based food can bring about a positive transformation in the mood, reducing the risks of depression and anxiety. According to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, individuals eating whole foods showed fewer symptoms of depression than those who primarily ate processed foods.
Another study on vegetarians vs meat-eaters published in the Nutrition Journal reported more positive moods in individuals who consumed a vegetarian diet than those who ate an omnivorous diet.
While several studies support the positive impact of a vegan or plant-based diet on mental well-being, many dieticians and health experts, too favor the same. Reshma Shah, M.D., a plant-based pediatrician and coauthor of Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families, says, “Eating a healthy diet comprising fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds —with the addition of fortified foods and supplements when indicated — can support mental well-being”. She further explains, “Phytonutrients, which have a protective effect, and fiber is responsible for the health of our gut microbiome, and are exclusive to plants and have been associated with improved mental health outcomes.”
Since now the impact of a vegan diet is evident to be positive on the human brain, let’s get into the details of how it actually benefits our mental well-being.
Benefits of a Vegan Diet On Mental Well-Being
Here’s how plant-based diet aid in mood-boosting and improving our mental well-being:
1. Provides The Good Mood Nutritients
Following a vegan diet gives you access to mood-boosting nutrients, such as zinc, vitamin B12, magnesium, and Omega 3. For instance, zinc and magnesium deficiency may lead to depression and anxiety. While pot roast and burgers are a good source of zinc, they also contain saturated fat and cholesterol (contained in red meat), which, as we know, are not good for us. On the contrary, vegans can meet their zinc requirements by opting for chickpeas, beans, and lentils.
Further, food rich in Vitamin B12 and omega 3 fatty acids also tend to lower inflammation in the body, thereby reducing the levels of cortisol – the stress hormone. Vegan-friendly food such as avocados, spinach, olive oil, and flax seeds are rich sources of Vitamin B12, Omega 3s, and magnesium.
2. Help With ADHD Symptoms
There’s no evidence about curing ADHD with food. However, one study revealed that preschool kids who chose processed food positively and significantly correlated with ADHD symptoms compared to those who chose the vegetarian dietary pattern.
3. Improves Focus
If you cannot keep your focus at work or in your studies, shifting to a vegan diet can help! Yes, you heard that right! According to a study, employees who consumed plant-based foods showed improved job performance. The study reported a 40-46% decrease in health-related productivity impairments at work and in day-to-day activities.
4. Boosts Cognitive Skills
As known, our cognitive skills tend to decrease as we get older. But, a Singapore-based study found that a vegan diet may even enhance mental health in midlife. The research was conducted on Chinese adults to study the Mediterranean diet plants. The authors revealed, “These results are evidence that adherence to healthy dietary patterns in midlife is associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment in late-life in Chinese adults.”
Things To Consider When Choosing A Vegan Diet
While shifting to a plant-based diet offers many benefits to our mental and physical well-being, certain things should be taken care of. These include:
- Deficiency of Nutrients – It’s nothing new that animal products are rich in certain nutrients such as vitamin B-12, choline, omega-3 fatty acids, folate, and amino acids. If not taken care of, you may lack these important nutrients while eating a plant-based diet, which may adversely affect your mental health.
Tip: Supplement your vegan diet with Vitamin D and Vitamin B12-rich foods, such as Bambara groundnut milk, almond milk, soy products, and fortified cereals.
- Deficiency of Calories – Transitioning to a vegan diet may result in a significant calorie deficiency. Many people lose a few pounds early during the transition, which is, of course, good. Problems arise when you are losing too much weight. Extreme weight reduction may lead to the nutrient deficiency of key nutrients and carbs, making you more irritable and hangry. To prevent this, include some healthy fats, such as avocados, and coconut oil, into your plant-based diet.
- Switch to Vegan Slowly – Experts recommend a slow transition to veganism so that they can become accustomed to new lifestyles. You can start by adding plant-based food to your meal once a week and slowly adding to the days. You can consult a dietician or a nutritionist to guide you through the transition.
- Be Well Informed About Vegan Products – While the majority of food items are vegan by default, there are a number of products that contain non-vegan ingredients. It’s important to know which products are vegan, as this can help you make more informed choices when grocery shopping.
The Final Say
No doubt, a plant-based diet can bring about a positive change in our lives – by improving our mental well-being and shaping our bodies. However, it should be a mindful transition with considerations like what to eat and how much to eat to prevent adverse impact.