Does being a veggie make you depressed?

A new study, which is based on survey data from Brazil, has found that vegetarians have twice as many depressive episodes as people who eat meat.
Alice Cooke
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  • A new study has found a positive association between depression and a meatless diet
  • Nutritional content, financial status and lifestyle choices were taken into consideration
  • This is the latest in a string of findings that have drawn similar conclusions
Does being a veggie make you depressed?
Veggie - depressed?

A new study, which is based on survey data from Brazil, has found that vegetarians have twice as many depressive episodes as people who eat meat.

And, as we think you’ll agree, twice as many is a lot.

The study does concede that “the association between vegetarianism and depression is still unclear”, so this isn’t a black or white thing. But the researchers wanted to investigate the association between a meatless diet and the presence of depressive episodes among adults, and the result surprised them, and, if we’re honest, us too.

A cross-sectional analysis was performed with baseline data from the ELSA-Brasil (Brazilian Longitudinal Study of Aging) cohort. This included 14,216 Brazilians aged 35 to 74 years; and the Clinical Interview Schedule-Revised (CIS-R) instrument was used to assess depressive episodes.

In its own words, the study “found a positive association between the prevalence of depressive episodes and a meatless diet. Meat non-consumers experienced approximately twice the frequency of depressive episodes of meat consumers”.

Which sounds fairly conclusive. But is it? To find out more, IE wanted to see what those in the know had to say about it, and why they think it’s accurate, if indeed they do.

The first interesting thing to note is that this new analysis, (which was published in the Journal of Affective Disorders), did not suggest that these results had anything to do with the nutritional content of a vegetarian diet.

The study took into account total calorie intake, protein intake, micronutrient intake, and the level of food processing in both instances – so both diets could be deemed to be nutritious.

Intriguingly, the results appeared to suggest that the act of becoming a vegetarian may be caused by negative thoughts, including feelings of guilt. Although, you would then assume that becoming a vegetarian would make vegetarians feel better, though it would seem that’s not the case. According to this research, at least.

The study concluded that, regardless of gender, financial status and lifestyle choices, people who don't consume meat have more frequent depressive episodes.

Urska Dobersek, a psychologist at the University of Southern Indiana, co-authored a meta-analysis study along similar lines in 2020. Entitled, Meat and mental health: A meta-analysis of meat consumption, depression, and anxiety, it looked at five online databases for primary studies examining differences in depression and anxiety between meat abstainers and meat consumers that offered a clear (dichotomous) distinction between these groups.

Twenty studies met the selection criteria, representing 171,802 participants, with 157,778 meat consumers and 13,259 meat abstainers. They calculated the magnitude of the effect between meat consumers and meat abstainers with bias correction, where higher and positive scores reflect better outcomes for meat consumers.

And their findings were that meat consumption was associated with lower levels of depression. When asked about the results, Dobersek told IE that it was less about being a vegetarian, per se, and more about following a dietary regime of any sort: “How many people have you met that are both happy and diet all the time? Probably very few, and there is a strong, scientific reason for that. Restrictive diets make people unhealthy and unhappy in the long term”.

As to why she felt the study was necessary in the first place, she adds: “What we eat and how we eat are integral parts of our identity and directly influence our health via physiological, social, and psychological pathways. Therefore, given the dramatic surge in veganism and mental illness over the past two decades, a rigorous systematic review was a necessary first step in examining the relations between meat and mental health.”

And she backs up the idea that vegetarians were probably depressed before they became vegetarians, not as a result of it, saying, “Meat avoidance may be both the 'chicken' and the 'egg' when it comes to mental illness”.

And far from being two isolated incidents, The Toronto Sun published a report on the subject, which said: “The study found people eating a plant-based diet were twice as likely to take prescription drugs for mental illness and just about three times more likely to contemplate suicide. It also indicated that 33% of vegetarians suffer from depression or anxiety”.

As did a German study, which performed a meta-analysis on vegetarian diet and depression scores. The meta-analysis looked at 49,889 participants (8,057 vegetarians and 41,832 non-vegetarian controls). It found that vegetarians showed higher depression scores than non-vegetarians.

Fairly meaty stuff, no?

But before you launch desperately at the nearest animal you can find, do temper your thoughts on the matter with the fact that none of these studies – or indeed any others that we could find – categorically suggest that being a vegetarian makes you miserable, or anything approaching it. The ieda that there is a potential causal link is still heavily debated and, as yet, unproven.

Indeed, the afore-mentioned German study says in its conclusions: “Vegetarians show higher depression scores than non-vegetarians. However, due to high heterogeneity of published studies, more empirical research is needed before any final conclusions can be drawn. Also, empirical studies from a higher number of different countries would be desirable.”

So it’s not exactly what you’d describe as anything approaching conclusive.

Perhaps these studies indicate that those who choose to follow a vegetarian lifestyle, may be of a more sensitive disposition, and perhaps more susceptible to be upset and affected emotionally in the long-term, by the idea of eating animals – whether they themselves are doing it or not. But more work is clearly needed to establish that.