Meat and Mental Health - Do Vegans & Vegetarians Have More Anxiety and Depression?

It's an interesting question that I'm covering today: is there a link between how much meat you do (or don't) consume and your mental health? As more and more people turn to a vegetarian or vegan diet for health or ethical reasons, are they in danger of damaging their psychological health and well-being?

Recently (April 2020) a systematic review of the current evidence set out to examine the relationship between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health and well-being, such as anxiety and depression.

Before I get onto their findings, it's worth me mentioning that I am a vegetarian and have been for nearly thirty years now. My decision was an ethical one, yet I've always been of the view that there are health benefits too from avoiding things like processed meat and red meat (but hey I'm not a dietician so you should always satisfy yourself about the physical health benefits either way). And because it's always the next question people ask: no my kids aren't vegetarian; that's for them to decide when they are old enough.

Certainly there is some evidence that a diet without meat can help to reduce the likelihood of a number of diseases and so, if nutritionally adequate, can provide health benefits in that regard. 

When I became a vegetarian my mental health was pretty poor and I struggled with anxiety and low self-esteem. Was there a link between my anxiety and becoming vegetarian? I couldn't tell you. Has my mental health improved since then? Massively. But is there any sort link between meat consumption and mental health?

Meat Consumption and Mental Health

To assess the link between meat consumption and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, Dobersek et al (Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena. April 2020), reviewed eighteen studies representing 160,257 participants (85,843 females and 73,232 males) with 149,559 meat-consumers and 8584 meat-abstainers from multiple geographic regions.

They found that eleven of the eighteen studies demonstrated that meat abstention was associated with poorer psychological health, four studies were equivocal, and three showed that meat-abstainers had better outcomes. The most rigorous studies demonstrated that the prevalence or risk of depression and/or anxiety were significantly greater in participants who avoided meat consumption.

In conclusion, they wrote, 

"Studies examining the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health varied substantially in methodologic rigor, validity of interpretation, and confidence in results. The majority of studies, and especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors. There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health".

This systematic review based upon a sample comprising of over one hundred and sixty thousand people, seems to suggest that being a vegan or vegetarian is associated with a higher risk of anxiety and depression. Certainly an interesting finding when some people abstain from meat for health, as opposed to ethical, reasons.

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So should you hand back your meat substitute burger and head down to your nearest McDonalds or Burger King to tuck into a nice piece of meat?

Well, despite the above findings linking meat abstention to mental health issues like anxiety and depression, it may be a little premature to make a change (for mental health reasons, anyway).

That's because there are many limitations to the data that was used for the research, as the authors highlight. They report that many research papers were poorly designed or had weaknesses in their design, making it hard to rely on the data unequivocally. 

Further, and perhaps key when trying to draw any conclusions about the link between meat consumption/abstention and mental health, "across all studies, there was no evidence to support a causal relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and any psychological outcomes."

That is, just because abstaining from meat was linked to a higher prevalence of anxiety and depression, does not mean that it is the cause of the mental health issues.

In particular, some studies didn't include information on the age at which meat abstention began or the duration of non consumption, so it is unknown, for example, if a relationship exists between the length of time someone has abstained from meat consumption and mental health issues, or whether having an exisiting mental health issue means you are more likely to then make a decision to become vegan or vegetarian. Having a mental health issue may make someone more likely to change their diet to one without meat, rather than an absence of meat in their diet causing the mental health issue. 

It could also be the case that excluding any food group (not just meat) may be linked to an increased likelihood of having anxiety and depression symptoms.

In addition, other factors that can be linked to mental health weren't always included in the studies. For example, factors such as lifestyle behaviours can affect health, such as other dietary factors, exercise levels, smoking and alcohol consumption.

Of course, if you are struggling with a mental health issue, whether you are vegetarian, vegan, a meat eater or otherwise, you should always seek professional support to help you.  This addition to the research suggests there may be a link betwen meat and mental health but certainly more research is needed to be certain that there is a causal relationship.

"The purpose of this review was to provide evidence to inform both clinical practice and future research. Overall, the scientific literature examining the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health varied substantially in both rigor and validity of interpretation. Higher quality studies suggested that those who abstained from meat consumption had a greater risk or prevalence of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. With respect to clinical practice, the avoidance of meat may be a behavioral marker that signifies poorer mental health. Study designs and/or a lack of rigor precluded inference of causal relations and none should be inferred. However, our study does not support avoiding meat consumption for overall psychological health benefits" (Dobersek et al, 2020).

To your health and happiness,

Dan Regan

Hypnotherapy in Ely, Newmarket and Online

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Urska Dobersek, Gabrielle Wy, Joshua Adkins, Sydney Altmeyer, Kaitlin Krout, Carl J. Lavie & Edward Archer (2020): Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1741505