I'll probably get into trouble for saying this, but hey, what's new? Here goes:
I've never met a vegetarian that wasn't a little... off. They're always a bit unstable.
It radiates off them, like an aura that some primitive part of my brain can detect. Then my brain sends my body the "run very far away from this person" signal.
Science has apparently noticed this too. Numerous studies have looked into the phenomenon and, generally, they've found that vegetarians do suffer from higher rates of mental illness compared to meat eaters. Depression and anxiety are the most common issues. Many even practice self-harm... and not just by avoiding Outback Steakhouse.
Now, researchers out of the University of Alabama have taken a closer look with a giant meta-analysis.
The researchers reviewed 18 studies involving a total of 160,257 participants. In a nutshell, the researchers found that...
- Vegetarians are twice as likely to take medication for mental illness.
- Vegetarians are nearly three times as likely to consider suicide.
- Vegetarians showed significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors.
- Generally, vegetarians demonstrated poorer psychological health while meat eaters exhibited better psychological health.
While not every study has found these links, most have. The "vegetarians are a little wobbly" trend was so profound that the researchers said vegetarianism may be a "behavioral marker" indicating poor mental health.
They concluded, "Our study does not support avoiding meat consumption for overall psychological health benefits."
They also said, "Don't date vegans, bro. Dem bitches be cra-zy!"
(Okay, I made that last part up.)
This, like the plethora of similar studies that came before it, leads us to ask two important questions:
- Does a vegetarian diet CAUSE mental illness?
- Do people who ALREADY suffer from mental illness just gravitate toward extreme diets like vegetarianism?
Well, we already know that basic nutritional deficiencies seem to cause – or at least exacerbate – things like depression, anxiety, and moodiness.
For example, omega-3 fatty acids help control inflammation, which has been categorically linked to mood disorders. (Taking fish oil has been shown to at least help with depression and smooth out mood swings.)
A study out of Australia showed that women who avoided red meat were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with depressive or anxiety disorders. Since Australian red meat is mostly grass-fed, the researchers associated the high rates of depression with insufficient omega-3s, but it could just as easily be a lack of iron.
Vitamin B-12 deficiency has also been linked to depression. Of course, vitamin B-12 is only found naturally in animal foods like meat, fish, and dairy.
The list goes on. But what about the other side of the coin? Are people with pre-existing mental issues just drawn to vegetarianism?
Some psychologists say that it's an issue of control: people with psychological troubles often feel out of control, and one thing they can control is what they eat. It empowers them and often makes them feel good... kinda... at least temporarily.
We've all ran into the morally superior vegan who has wrapped his or her entire identity around what they don't eat. For them, their diet is more of a comforting quasi-religion; something that gives them purpose ("I'm saving the planet!"); or it gives them an enemy to fight against – evil people who eat animals.
If the control theory is true, it can lead to eating disorders in extreme cases. Some mental health experts note that veganism has also being used as a cover for orthorexia or disordered eating. A 2013 study found that half of women with anorexia – classified as a mental illness – reported eating some form of vegetarian diet.
While the debate about meat eating and physical health will probably go on forever, the mental health argument seems to be settled: people need to eat meat for psychological well-being.
At the very least, vegans should be supplementing the hell out of their diets to avoid mood-wrecking deficiencies. That should take care of the nutritional side of things.
If mental health issues are pre-existing, then a vegetarian diet isn't the best choice as it may aggravate or intensify the problem.
Cardiologist Aseem Malhotra notes, "If you're vegan or vegetarian for ethical reasons, then please personally invest extra in strategies to protect your mental health."
He also added, "Don't date vegans, bro. Dem bitches be cra-zy!"
Yes, sometimes I make jokes. Fight me.
- Dobersek U et al. Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2021;61(4):622-635. PubMed.