Vegan diets have been praised for their variety of benefits, like lower mortality rates and less stress on the environment. The vegetables, legumes, and grains that compose vegan diets use less land and water to cultivate than animal products. And they produce less waste and greenhouse gasses than raising livestock does. In fact, a 2017 study in the journal Climatic Change found that if every American simply substituted beans for beef in their diet, the U.S. could achieve up to 74% of the greenhouse gas reduction goals outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.
And vegan diets are better for our bodies, as well. Reports indicate that plant-based diets reduce your risk for a host of medical issues, including diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, and obesity. But despite its many advantages, just 3% of Americans identify as vegan.
But how does veganism affect your brain? While studies disagree, there is evidence that a vegan diet has several mental health benefits.
Vegan Diets Provide Good-Mood Nutrients (Without the Health Risks)
When you follow a vegan diet, you have access to mood-boosting nutrients without the negative side effects of meat-based diets. Deficiencies in zinc, for example, have been linked to depression and anxiety. And while many Americans meet their zinc requirements with pot roast and burgers, vegans opt for healthier alternatives like chickpeas, lentils, and beans. So they get the nutrients they need to ward off depression without the additional saturated fat and cholesterol that come with red meat.
Foods rich in Vitamin B12, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids have also been found to reduce inflammation in the body, which then reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol. And many of the foods rich in these nutrients — from fortified cereal and nutritional yeast for Vitamin B12 to avocados and spinach for magnesium to flax seeds, walnuts, and olive oil for omega 3s — are vegan friendly.
Vegan Diets Promote Positive Feelings
We’ve all heard the saying “you are what you eat.” And vegan diets have been shown to provide mood benefits and decrease various mental health issues.
One study performed by a U.S. insurance agency included participants who were overweight or had a history of diabetes. For 18 weeks, participants were either asked to continue their normal diets or to follow a low-fat vegan diet. The latter group reported reduced depression and anxiety as well as more productivity at work.
Another 2015 study showed that vegans tend to report less stress and anxiety than their meat-eating counterparts.
While one research review stated that a plant-based diet might increase depression symptoms, other studies have suggested that it may be processed foods, not lack of meat, to blame.
A study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry analyzed the diets and risk of depression in 3,486 participants over a five-year period. Participants who eat more whole foods reported fewer symptoms of depression than those who ate mostly processed foods.
That’s more proof that your vegan diet should rely heavily on whole, unprocessed foods rather than processed meat, cheese, and egg substitutes.
And since depression and anxiety often co-occur with substance abuse, preventing these issues is especially important for anyone with a family history of substance abuse.
Vegan Diets Reduce Pain
While pain reduction seems at first glance like a physical benefit of veganism rather than a mental health one, it’s no secret that people in less pain are generally happier, while people dealing with frequent pain report higher levels of depression. And vegan diets have been shown to decrease pain in some circumstances. One study suggested that a vegan diet reduced PMS symptoms (often including cramping and other pain) in women. Another suggested it can reduce the risk of painful urinary tract infections.
Persistent migraines can also cause high levels of pain that may worsen a person’s mental health.
But a review found that people who ate low-fat vegan diets consisting of vegetables, whole grains, lentils, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and vitamin E supplements experienced decreases in pain intensity and headache frequency during the final two weeks of a nine-month study. This is likely due to elimination of foods such as meat and dairy that can trigger migraines.
Veganism Enhances Cognitive Skills
Cognitive skills may decline as people age, but a study in Singapore found that a plant-based diet may improve mental health later in life.
“These results provide evidence that adherence to healthy dietary patterns in midlife is associated with a lower risk of cognitive impairment in late life in Chinese adults,” noted the authors. They primarily studied Mediterranean diet plans that featured vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and legumes grown and eaten seasonally.
Some Concerns When Choosing a Plant-Based Diet
A few studies noted some health issues related to plant-based diets. They included a 20% higher stroke rate among vegetarians compared to meat-eating or pescatarian (fish-eating) individuals. While heart disease risks were still 22% lower, the higher stroke rate is troubling.
Other research indicated that while plant-based diets are often rich in vitamin C, vitamin E, and selenium, they can also exhibit “significant deficiencies concerning other vitamins, including vitamin B12 and vitamin D.”
People interested in plant-based diets might want to take certain approaches:
- Choose vitamin-rich sources: Eat foods with omega-3 fatty acids (chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds), tryptophan (leafy greens, sunflower seeds, soybeans, peas, mushrooms, and broccoli), and the B vitamins (nutritional yeast, sunflower seeds, peanuts, leafy greens, and avocado) to improve protein synthesis and increase mood-boosting substances such as serotonin and dopamine.
- Find alternative protein sources: Alternative protein sources, such as tofu, tempeh, seitan, and textured vegetable protein, may help improve mental health for people with plant-based diets. Protein helps improve amino acid synthesis, which can enhance serotonin levels and thus mood.
- Transition slowly: Transitioning gradually to plant-based diets may help people become accustomed to their new lifestyles. Experts suggest starting by incorporating a vegetarian or vegan meal once a week, learning new recipes and techniques (such as roasted vegetables or soups), and slowly adding more plant-based days.
Taking Care When Starting New Diets
Consider working with your physician and nutritionist whenever you’re starting a diet or exercise routine. Talk to them about your current eating habits, examine healthy methods for transitioning to a plant-based diet, and create a dietary plan that works for your everyday life.
You may also discuss supplements to improve this process and minimize the likelihood of potential nutritional deficiencies. Plant-based diets can provide benefits, but be careful when starting these regimens or other life changes.
This article was originally published on February 21, 2022.
About the Author
Pamela Zuber has been a writer and editor at Sunshine Behavioral Health since 2016. Her writing has appeared on several websites as well as in numerous reference books and databases. After earning a degree in English and communication from the University of Michigan and a history degree from Oakland University, she continues to learn and apply her knowledge to her writing. She hopes her work can inform readers, help them find assistance, and eliminate stigmas about addiction and mental health conditions.