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How Vegan, Vegetarian, and Low-Carb Diets Affect Depression

Vegan diets, vegetarian diets, and low-carb diets may cause or worsen depression and mental health in general. Details on HealthyPlace.

Vegan, vegetarian, and low-carb diets play a role in depression. Proper nutrition is essential to brain health, after all. The brain needs specific nutrients to function, and it uses what we give it for fuel, to make neurotransmitters like serotonin, to regulate mood, and to generally function fully. Can vegan diets, vegetarian diets or low-carb diets supply the brain with enough nutrition or do they worsen or cause depression?

In this article, we take a look at the research into the vegetarian diet and depression, vegan diet and depression, and low-carb diet and depression to find the answer.

Vegan, Vegetarian, and Low-Carb Diets and Depression: The Research

People have personal reasons for adopting special diets. In general, overall health is one of the driving factors behind the decision to drastically alter one’s diet.

In vegan and vegetarian diets, people ditch meat and adopt a plant-based diet. Vegans take their diet and lifestyle farther than do vegetarians, as vegans won’t consume anything that originates or is derived from animals, birds, or fish.

In a low-carb diet, like a ketogenic diet, people eat extremely low amounts of carbohydrates to manage weight and feel good. In the keto diet, the goal is to eat very little carbohydrates and protein and consume fats instead. The theory is that the brain can use fat-based fuel (ketones) better than it can carbs.

Research studies have identified some health benefits to these special diets. What studies have not been able to do, however, is to prove that such diets have mental health benefits. Further, some research indicates that there is a correlation between vegan, vegetarian, and low-carb diets and mental health problems like depression.

Vegan, Vegetarian, and Low-Carb Diets and Depression

Diets that eliminate essential food sources are being linked to depression and other mental illnesses. When we experience nutritional deficiencies, our mood suffers, we find it difficult to handle stress, anxiety increases, and we struggle to manage not just our emotions but our thoughts and actions, too. A balanced diet is essential for wellbeing.

Vegan diets and depression are linked because a completely meatless diet doesn’t supply the right types and amounts of proteins, minerals, and vitamins. The same goes for a vegetarian diet and depression. Some of the missing dietary essentials include

  • Vitamin B12
  • Zinc
  • Iron
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (the form that exists in long chains)
  • Creatine (the amount produced in our own bodies isn’t enough)
  • Protein
  • Micronutrients found in meats that play a big role in mental health
  • Other vitamins and minerals

The body and brain also need complex carbohydrates. A correlation exists between low-carb diets and depression. An insufficient supply of energy to the brain can contribute to depression. A low-carb diet must replace carbohydrates with a different source of fuel for the brain. Leaving the brain without a source of energy is linked to depression and other mental health problems.

Research Says This about Vegan, Vegetarian, and Low-Carb Diets and Depression

So far, the number of research studies that investigate vegan diets, vegetarian diets and low-carb diets and depression are limited. Some things are yet unknown, but many things about nutrition, the brain, and depression are being discovered. This evidence-based information reported in Women’s Health might surprise you:

  • Researchers in Australia have learned that people on a vegetarian diet are less optimistic about their future than are people who eat meat
  • The same study showed that vegetarians were 18% more likely to report depression than meat-eaters
  • Also from the Australian study, vegetarians were 28% more likely to have anxiety and panic attacks than people who didn’t restrict meat intake
  • German researchers found that vegetarians are 15% more likely to experience “depressive conditions”
  • These researchers in Germany further reported that people on meatless diets are twice as likely to have anxiety than are people who haven’t given up meat

Dr. Emily Deans, a psychiatrist writing for Psychology Today, sums up the research quite succinctly: “Compared to the general population, the vegetarians were more likely to have mental disorders.”

It might be possible to use nutritional supplements to provide what vegan, vegetarian, and low-carb diets lack (learn what an appropriate diet plan for depression and anxiety looks like). B vitamin supplements, in particular, are promising in their ability to boost mental health for people on special diets (Walton, 2017). However, not enough studies have yet been done on the vegetarian diet and depression, vegan diet and depression, and low-carb diet and depression to know if supplements can help, which ones are needed, and how much is safe to take.

If you’re on a meatless or low-carb diet, it’s important to check in with your doctor and/or mental health professional from time to time, and especially if you notice symptoms of depression or anxiety, to make sure your mental health is at an optimal level.

article references

APA Reference
Peterson, T. (2018, May 15). How Vegan, Vegetarian, and Low-Carb Diets Affect Depression, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, July 18 from https://www.healthyplace.com/depression/food-and-depression/how-vegan-vegetarian-and-low-carb-diets-affect-depression

Last Updated: June 20, 2019

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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