Mental Benefits of Being Vegetarian: Are Vegetarians Happier?

mental benefits of vegetarian diets

What we eat affects how well our body functions, how much energy we have, how well we sleep, how long we stay healthy and a raft of other physical outcomes. It also affects our moods. Evidence increasingly points to the links between diet and depression and we know that eating a whole food plant-based diet that is rich in antioxidants, minerals and vitamins can keep us healthy inside and out.

Can being a vegetarian affect your mood?

Becoming vegetarian or vegan can certainly affect mood but it depends what food you eat! If you eat the dozens of flavors of vegan ice cream and load up on plant-based candies, donuts and cookies you may be vegan but you will not be healthy!

Just remember: The foods that are good for our bodies are also good for our minds, so leaving out sugar, fried foods and junk foods – whether they are vegan or not – is good for both physical and mental wellbeing.

Can being a vegetarian cause depression?

There have been studies into vegetarianism and depression though they do not all come to the same conclusion. A 2012 study published in the Nutritional Journal found that vegetarians had lower scores on depression tests and mood profiles when compared to fish and meat-eaters and that “there was no evidence for a causal role of vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders”.

Other research suggests that vegetarians are less happy or may suffer more depression. However, if there is a connection, research does not suggest that one causes the other. And in some cases it could be that both stem from the same source. After all, the things that could trigger depression – such as the factory farming and slaughter of defenseless animals, climate change, and loss of precious wildlife through deforestation – could also be the very things that lead us to becoming vegetarian.

Another connection may be down to some vegetarians or vegans who live outside of cities and large towns feeling isolated or not understood by their peers. This feeling is perfectly understandable but it has nothing to do with the diet itself.

What we do know is that a whole food plant-based diet, good sleep, exercise and relaxation can work wonders for poor mental health.

Are vegans happier?

Many new vegans say they experience feelings of relief and report that they feel at peace now they are not harming animals. After all, most of us consider ourselves to be animal lovers, and we treat our beloved dog or cat as one of the family. We may turn away when images of factory farming appear because it upsets us too much to look. And yet deep down we know we are part of that system, while at the same time not wanting animals to live that way. No wonder many new vegans say that stepping away from it all is a very freeing experience.

Often, new vegans also talk about improved sleep, and we all know the effect that bad sleep can have on mood. Many also report a new-found mental clarity, a feeling as though a fog has lifted, while others find they love spending more time in nature, and research shows that this can have a beneficial effect on mental health.

The happiest man on Earth

A Tibetan monk, originally from France, has been dubbed “the world’s happiest man” after taking part in a 12-year brain study during which his head was hooked up to 256 sensors while he meditated on compassion. The scans showed that Ricard’s brain produces a level of gamma waves – those linked to consciousness, attention, learning and memory – “never reported before in the neuroscience literature”.

So, how do we attain Mattieu Ricard’s level of happiness? He suggests we should be benevolent and put others first and says we should all train our brains by thinking positive, happy thoughts for a 15-minute period every day. We might also learn a thing or two from his diet: Mattieu Ricard is vegan.

Other vegetarian potential benefits

Being physically ill can be a terrible drag on our moods with long-term ill-health creating long-term mental suffering, too. The great news is that eating vegetarian or vegan foods can have a very positive effect on the health of our bodies.

Decreases asthma symptoms

Diets that prioritize fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes and minimize saturated fat reduce the risk for asthma and may even improve asthma control. One study found that asthma patients who consumed a plant-based diet for eight weeks experienced a greater reduction in use of asthma medication and less severe, less frequent symptoms.

Good for heart health

We have known for a very long time that a plant-based diet is great for our hearts because it contains little saturated fat and no cholesterol at all. We need to crowd our plates with vegetables because research shows that ten servings a day can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 28 per cent, and premature death by 31 per cent.

Lower blood pressure

According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “People who follow a plant-based diet typically have lower blood pressure than those who consume animal products. In fact, the authors of a 2014 meta-analysis reviewed 39 studies and found that when compared to those who eat meat, vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure.” There are several reasons why that would be, including the fact that animal products contain saturated fat, which increases our blood’s viscosity and makes the blood harder to pump.

Lower risk of cancer

There is strong evidence that plants are protective when it comes to certain cancers. Research has found that those who eat diets of mostly plant-based foods have “a marked reduction in mortality and age-adjusted incidence of many cancers common in Western society. These cancers include breast, prostate, colon, pancreas, ovary, and uterine endometrium cancers.” It’s not just that vegetables are the good guys, though they truly are heroes! It’s also that meat is a real problem. The World Health Organization says there is sufficient evidence to affirm that processed meat causes cancer and that all red meat should be categorised as “probably carcinogenic”. Even a moderate intake of red meat raises the cancer risk.

Reduce risk for type 2 diabetes

Research shows that higher intakes of red meat and poultry are associated with a significantly increased risk of developing diabetes, a serious condition that can have terrible consequences. Conversely, a plant-based diet can not only prevent and manage type 2 diabetes, it can even reverse it. One 2003 study, funded by the NIH, found that a plant-based diet controlled blood sugar three times more effectively than the traditional diabetes diet and participants saw dramatic improvements within weeks.

Conclusion

If you’re struggling with mental health issues, we’d urge you to seek professional medical support. Alongside that, adopting a plant-based diet can have a marked effect on your brain chemistry, your physical health, how you sleep, how you feel when you wake up and your mood. If you’re ready to give it a try, let us help you with our free Vegan Starter Kit and Health & Nutrition guide.

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