In a new study from Bond University, researchers found not all vegan and vegetarian diets are healthy—and one consequence of a low-quality plant-based diet could be poorer mental health.
They found plant-eaters with a taste for processed foods are more susceptible to depression than peers with diets high in fresh produce.
The findings were significant given the increasing popularity of vegan and vegetarian lifestyles and the proliferation of packaged foods targeting those markets.
In the study, researchers examined the diet quality and mental health of 219 vegans and vegetarians in Australia.
Participants were aged 18–44 which closely corresponds with the 15–44 age group for which suicide is the leading cause of death in Australia. Almost 14% of people in this age group report experiencing symptoms of depression.
The participants were asked to complete questionnaires based on recognized measures of diet quality and depression.
The team found those with diets high in fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and whole grains were at lower risk of depression compared to fellow vegans and vegetarians with low-quality diets.
The team says the protective effect of a high-quality plant-based diet was likely due to the presence of complex carbohydrates, fiber, probiotics, and antioxidants which have all been found to decrease symptoms of depression.
But switching to a high-quality plant-based diet may not be a “cure” for those already experiencing depression.
It seems to have more of a protective role. This research did not find that a plant-based diet was a treatment or fix for those who were already depressed.
The research also holds good news for meat-eaters looking to protect their mental health.
They can still benefit from preventive and protective food by consuming more fruits and vegetables.
More than 2.5 million Australians have chosen to go meat-free—about 12 percent of the total population.
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The study is published in Prevention & Health. One author of the study is Megan Lee.
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