How Plant-Based Eating Affects Your Mood

Updated: Feb 7

Guest post from Sunshine Behavioral Health

“You are what you eat.” You've probably heard this platitude too many times to count, but have you ever stopped to consider whether what you eat has any bearing on how you feel?

Mental illness can affect anyone and may develop anytime in the form of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, dementia, and more. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), depression affects almost 300 million people. The primary therapies for depression include antidepressant medications and psychotherapies. However, psychotherapy services may be limited, and compliance with antidepressants is low. Medication is not always ideal or effective for everyone, not to mention the side effects. Lifestyle factors, such as physical activity and diet, may be better options for those with mild forms of depression or anxiety.

Your Mind on Meat

A diet rich in animal products may increase feelings of depression. One of the reasons for this is arachidonic acid, an essential fatty acid found only in animal products.

There are two schools of thought regarding its effects:

  • Some maintain arachidonic acid is beneficial since it's needed for muscle growth.

  • Other studies show it is an inflammatory chemical messenger that can trigger mood-changing disturbances in the brain including depression, stress, anxiety, and hopelessness.

One study looked at the relationship between red meat consumption and depression, anxiety and psychological distress in 482 women, aged 25-50 years old. They found that women who consumed the most red meat had a higher risk of depression compared with those who consumed less. They also found that women who consumed more red meat had more anxiety and distress compared to those who consumed less meat.

They concluded that red meat contains cholesterol, saturated fatty acid and heme iron, which are risk factors for chronic diseases. Red meat intake is also associated with higher BMI, higher prevalence of obesity, and lower physical activity levels. All of these factors may be associated with declining mental health due to oxidative stress and inflammation.

Plant-based foods, on the other hand, have zero cholesterol, low amounts of saturated fat, and plant-based iron, which has been shown to be better for health compared to heme iron found in meat. Plant-based foods also have fiber and phytonutrients (plant nutrients) — two things that are not found in meat. Both fiber and phytonutrients combat inflammation and fight oxidative stress, promoting optimal physical and mental health.

Saturated Fat and Brain Health

A study in Denmark found that high intake of saturated fat doubled the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, a warning sign of Alzheimer's.

Symptoms of mild cognitive decline include:

  • Difficulty remembering names or recalling words

  • Misplacing objects

  • Forgetting to go to appointments or meetings

When this occurs, it can be frightening and cause a person to seek comfort by self-medicating with strong tranquilizers, mood-boosting antidepressants, and other addictive drugs. If this is the case, it's important to seek professional help.

When you switch to a plant-based diet you cut down on the amount of saturated fat found in meat, butter, eggs, and other animal-derived foods.

This can reduce LDL (low-density lipoproteins) cholesterol levels, which may:

  • Increase the flow of blood to the brain

  • Reduce the levels of total cholesterol in the blood

  • Prevent cholesterol from accumulating in the brain and forming deposits called amyloid plaque that can lead to cognitive decline.

Research shows that the sooner you adopt a low-fat plant-based diet, the better.

A California study that followed 9,844 individuals for 30 years found that high cholesterol levels in a person's blood, while in their 40s, predicted their risk for Alzheimer's Disease when they reached their 70s.

Swapping out meat for plants may have positive affects on your brain.

Your Mind On A Plant-based Diet

Depression, Anxiety, and Stress

Animal-based products may cause depression through inflammation. Plant-based foods are high in phytonutrients that act like antioxidants, fighting inflammation. A plant-based diet may naturally help to fight depression and lower levels of stress and anxiety.


Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that makes it hard to concentrate, consider consequences of actions beforehand, or sit still.

While eating more plant-forward meals won't cure ADHD, studies suggest it can help ease its symptoms. One 2018 report from China found that fewer children on a vegetarian diet had ADHD symptoms compared to those who ate processed foods.

Cognitive Decline

At the other end of the life spectrum, researchers found that individuals ages 45-to-74 years who ate more plant-based foods were 18 to 33% less likely to develop cognitive decline in their later years than those who were strictly omnivores.

Mental Focus and Productivity

A study conducted by City Pantry, a British food service company that delivers lunches to workplaces, found that plant proteins, leafy greens, and vegan dark chocolate boosted brain power and fostered good moods while processed meats and cheeses had the opposite results.

Fun fact: the brain uses about 20% of the total energy that the body gets from food and quality counts!

Processed foods can have an inflammatory effect on the brain, which in turn forces the brain to consume a considerable amount of energy just to keep going. In the above mentioned study, the anti-inflammatory plant-based lunches didn't tax the brain and allowed workers to return to their desks energized and focused on their tasks.

Should a mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack be needed, nuts, seeds, fruits and avocados can provide the energy necessary to undertake a challenging assignment. (Stuffed avocado with mango, tomato, red onion, pumpkin seeds, and a squeeze of lime is pretty delicious!)

Plant-based nutrients of focus