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Veganism, Depression and Anxiety: Is There a Risk?

Vegan-Anxiety-Depression
7 min reading time

Veganism, Depression, and Anxiety: Is There a Risk?

 

Short answer: if done improperly, yes!

 

But, as a registered dietitian, I would argue this also goes for any eating pattern that limits certain food groups, such as vegetarianism, the gluten-free diet, or the keto diet just to name a few. 

 

This is because if done improperly, any way of eating can result in nutrient deficiencies that can negatively impact mental health. 

 

Despite that, there are certainly amazing benefits to being vegan. 

 

Animal products are high in saturated fat which is known to raise cholesterol. This has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, and other metabolic diseases. There is strong scientific evidence to show that veganism can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers.  

 

When done properly, vegans can replace the important nutrients found in animal products with plant-based sources and manage their risk for deficiencies, lowering the risk of veganism and depression

Depression-Vegan

Impact of the vegan diet for depression and anxiety risk 

In addition to mental health, following a vegan diet can be great for physical health. 

Vegans have a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes, arthritis, chronic inflammation, high blood pressure, heart disease, and much more. Often, people also have more energy, reduced inflammation, and they feel better overall after removing animal products from their diet. 

All of this in turn can have a positive impact on one’s mental health. 

How a vegan diet affects mood is very dependent on the individual. Some of my clients report that a vegan diet has been amazing for their depression and anxiety, while others describe the vegan diet as causing anxiety. 

The latter can result from having to constantly defend eating patterns to non-vegans or striving for perfectionism with veganism, just to name a few. 

All in all, I suggest that people reflect honestly about their reasons for following a vegan diet and be open to adaptation if things aren’t going well. 

If veganism is causing a lot of stress and you need to take a step back, it’s totally okay to prioritize yourself and put yourself first during challenging times. 

 

Can the vegan diet cause anxiety or depression?

It is probably no surprise to you that there is no single cause of anxiety or depression. These are complex mental health challenges. 

Many factors are involved, including a person’s personality, genetic and biological factors, and social environment. The causes are different for each person. Thus, the vegan diet cannot cause anxiety or depression alone. 

Nonetheless, there is a relationship between veganism and depression. It has been shown that there are higher rates of depression amongst vegans when compared to the general population. 

A piece of this complex puzzle relates to nutrient deficiencies sometimes seen in vegans. 

Key nutrients related to veganism and depression

Veganism and depression can be linked if the vegan diet is deficient in certain key nutrients. Some important ones to consider are:

 

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is important in the regulation of serotonin and other mood controlling chemicals. Low B12 also causes a type of anemia that leads to fatigue, forgetfulness, and lethargy. 

 

Vegan sources of vitamin B12 include fortified cereals, fortified plant milks, and nutritional yeast. However, a supplement is often recommended for vegans. 

 

See my article on beginner vegan diet tips for more suggestions on Vitamin B12.

 

Folate

Many metabolic processes in our body rely on folate. Folate deficiency leads to anemia which is similar to B12 deficiency. 

Be sure to eat dark leafy greens, asparagus, citrus, and avocado often to get enough folate. 

 

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fatty acids play a crucial role in brain function, especially when it comes to memory and mood. 

 

Omega-3 fatty acids are essential, meaning our bodies don’t produce them. This means we need to eat them or take supplements. 

 

The best vegan sources of omega 3 are hemp seeds, chia seeds, walnuts and flax seeds. Make sure that your daily diet includes these or take a 250-500mg daily supplement. 

 

Amino Acids

All the neurotransmitters in our brain are proteins made from amino acids. Your protein intake has a significant impact on your mental health. 

As a vegan, make sure you eat a variety of protein sources, like beans, peas, whole grains, and soy products. 

 

Iron

Iron deficiency is all too common, especially in pre-menopausal vegan women. The symptoms of iron deficiency (fatigue, brain fog, irritability) can worsen depressive symptoms. 

Good vegan dietary sources of iron are beans, lentils, fortified cereals, dark chocolate, and molasses. 

For some context on how much iron we need, vegan and vegetarian women aged 19-50 need 32.4mg of iron daily. Plant-based eaters need 1.8 times more iron than non-vegetarians!

One cup of chickpeas contains 12 grams of iron and one cup of boiled lentils contains 6 grams iron. For an adult woman to obtain enough iron from these legumes, she would need to eat almost 3 cups of chickpeas or 5 cups of boiled lentils per day. 

An iron supplement or iron as part of a multivitamin-mineral supplement can be a valuable addition to any diet that may be somewhat low in iron.

Do not neglect your iron needs! 

Depression-Anxiety-Vegan

​​Mood swings on a vegan diet

Vegan mood swings can occur due to blood sugar fluctuations and nutritional imbalances, among other factors. Skipping meals can lead to low blood sugar which can cause irritability or an unstable mood. 

A vegan diet can also affect mood if it doesn’t include a variety of whole foods. Refined sugars, processed foods, and dehydration can all influence mood swings. 

Following a healthy eating pattern can help you stay energized and stay in control of your emotions. A registered dietitian can support you in having a balanced diet.

Vegan depression meal and snack ideas

If you frequently enter bouts of depression and don’t want to eat anything at all, having some super simple healthy meal/snack ideas in your back pocket can be helpful. 

 

These don’t require many dishes, time, or effort, and can be great for vegan depression:

A plant-based nutritionist can offer more easy snack suggestions.

Getting support for depression as a vegan

An ideal complete treatment team for vegan depression and/or anxiety is composed of family/caregivers, a medical doctor, a mental health professional, and a registered dietitian. 

 

Having a health team behind you is key to managing any kind of mental illness or mental health challenge. 

 

For information on how a vegan diet can affect mood, what a vegan diet for depression and anxiety looks like, or what the links between veganism and depression are, a registered dietitian that is specialized in plant-based nutrition is important.

Depression-Anxiety-Vegan-Diet

Veganism, depression, and anxiety: is there a risk?

 

Overall, when done with care and awareness, vegans can replace the important nutrients found in animal products with plant-based sources and manage their risk for deficiencies, lowering the risk of veganism and depression

 

It’s important to avoid nutrient deficiencies and to fuel the body with a balanced vegan diet when managing mental health conditions. 

 

If you are vegan and struggling with depression, anxiety, or any mental health issue and you want to speak with a nutritionist, I would be happy to support you.