At the outset, allow me to establish that I fully understand the significance of depression and the impact it has on people’s lives. I don’t suffer from, nor have I ever battled, depression. But I’ve witnessed and experienced its influence first-hand. Both my parents suffered from depression throughout their life –- and one of my very best friends committed suicide 14 years ago (I miss him every day).
I share all that because it’s a serious topic. And based on my experience, given the discussion that follows, it’s easy to anticipate the potential scolding that could ensue had I not established that foundation. Enough said.
Now, many of you are likely asking why the topic of depression is even being addressed in a Feedstuffs column. It results from a recent Daily Mail headline that caught my attention: “,..vegetarians are almost twice as likely to be suffering from depression…”
The article explains that, “Vegetarians are often fond of preaching the healthy virtues of their meat-free diet. But giving up chicken and beef in favor of carrots and broccoli is making them more miserable, say experts.”
The findings are based on a study by Bristol University published in the Journal of Affective Disorders. The explanation for higher depression scores included: lower intake of vitamin B12 and increased intake of omega-6 fatty acids. Additionally, there exist other potential causative agents including elevated blood levels of phytoestrogens associated with soy- and vegetable-based diets.
The findings, however, aren’t unique to England. Case in point, Women’s Health published an article in 2015 entitled, “The Scary Mental Health Risks of Going Meatless (Vegetarianism Can Come With Some Unexpected Side Effects). The discussion featured research from Australia in which vegetarians were found to be less optimistic about the future, more likely to report depression and suffer panic attacks and anxiety. Similarly, U.S.-based Lierre Keith, author of The Vegetarian Myth, reports that she, “…hear[s] from vegetarians every day; they have this terrible depression and they don’t understand why.”
The topic reminded me of a column I wrote about four years ago in Feedstuffs. It focused on a TV ad produced by Red Robin touting that, “We even have a Gardenburger – just in case your teenage daughter is going through a phase.” The vegetarians and vegans took to social media berating the ad as insensitive and proclaiming their decision to not eat meat or animal products was much more than just a “phase.”
The company subsequently issued a formal apology and explained the ad was simply an attempt to promote their veggie burger –- intended only “to increase awareness in an irreverent, lighthearted way.” But to no avail. And at the time I explained all the hullabaloo seemed “like a lot of misplaced indignation.” Given the new research, it now appears the vitriolic response to Red Robin is likely indicative of a larger, more serious issue.
As I read the Daily Mail article I kept thinking, “But what if it works the other way.” And there in the final sentence I found my answer: “…the authors did not rule out that the decision to adopt a vegetarian diet may be a symptom of depression.” Meanwhile, the Women’s Health article also addresses that topic. Emily Deans, Boston psychiatrist explains that “We don’t know if a vegetarian diet causes depression and anxiety, or if people who are predisposed to those mental conditions gravitate toward vegetarianism.”
As such, there needs to be more research to fully understand the relationship between vegetarianism and depression. More specifically: are vegetarians depressed because they don’t eat meat, or are people prone to depression more likely to become vegetarians (and if so, maybe vegetarianism confounds the depression)? Alternatively, there are also inherent questions about the continuum: people who eat very little meat – where are they in terms of outlook and perspective?
Whatever the answers, it appears the lifestyle choice, at minimum, accentuates depression. The research trend is hard to deny: avoiding meat has serious consequences. Many of us remember well the enduring dairy promotion proclaiming, “Milk – it does a body good.” Turns out there’s a parallel for meat – it does the mind good.