Updated: Sep 23, 2022
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
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
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.
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
While a plant-based diet is one of the best things you can do for your mental health, you'll also want to make sure you are obtaining sufficient calories and nutrients. Not getting enough of either could affect, not only your physical health, but also your mental health and mood.
Switching to a plant-based diet may result in weight loss due to plant-based food’s high fiber and nutrient content, which is a bonus to some, but a detriment to others. Oftentimes, individuals find themselves getting full quickly, which may result in consuming less calorie intake. Consuming insufficient calories also often results in insufficient nutrients that support mental health, leaving you feeling irritable and easily distracted.
If reaching enough calories is a challenge for you, consume calorically-dense, but also nutrient-rich, plant-based foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds. If you'd like to check your calorie intake, visit cronometer.com.
Specific Nutrient Needs
If you are not getting enough nutrients like amino acids, choline, folate, magnesium, omega 3 fatty acids, and phytonutrients, you may run the risk of developing mental and emotional issues such as:
Lack of focus
With proper meal planning, getting enough calories and specific nutrients is not only possible, but can help you thrive and live healthfully.
"Where do you get your protein" might be the most common question asked of people who go plant-based. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, are found in all plant-based foods. There are nine essential amino acids that need to be obtained from food. Eating a wide variety of plant-based foods and getting sufficient calories can ensure plenty of amino acids, or protein, to support muscle growth, hormone synthesis and brain health. Plant foods that provide all nine essential amino acids in quantities similar to animal products include tofu, tempeh, edamame, pistachios, quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and nutritional yeast.
Choline is an essential nutrient involved in memory, mood, muscle control, and other brain and nervous system functions. Consuming choline from animal products has been linked to health issues, but consuming choline from plants has been shown to be protective against health issues while supporting brain function. Choline in animal products has been shown to increase TMAO, a substance that has been associated with greater risk for heart attack, stroke, and death. One study linked choline consumption to increased risk of heart disease. However, the authors found that subjects who followed a vegan or vegetarian diet were protected against the harmful effects of choline, while receiving the positive effects of choline for the brain. Plant-based foods with choline include nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains.
An article in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience states, "DHA is quantitatively the most important omega-3 PUFA (polyunsaturated fatty acid) in the brain." DHA, or docosapentaenoic acid, is a type of omega 3 fatty acid found in cold-water fish and algae. Another type of omega 3 fatty acid, alpha linolenic acid (ALA) is found in walnuts, flax meal, chia seeds, and hemp seeds. Our bodies can covert ALA to DHA, the important omega 3 in brain health, but the conversion is low, most likely less than 5 percent. Walnuts, flax, chia seeds, and hemp seeds include many nutrients for health, therefore it's important to include them often, but they shouldn't be the only source of omega 3's when following a plant-based diet. Taking an algae-based omega 3 supplement that includes DHA or DPA (a fatty acid that converts easily to DHA) is best for reassurance.
Folate and Magnesium
There are many nutrients that play a supportive role in brain health, folate and magnesium being two of them. Great news plant-based enthusiasts! Folate (a vitamin) and magnesium (a mineral) can easily be obtained through plants. Both nutrients can be found in beans, peas, lentils, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and beets (plus many more!).
When most people think of a plant-based diet, they envision a bright array of hues—crisp salad greens, red and yellow vegetables, and fresh fruits in a rainbow of colors. These beautiful colors come from phytonutrients in plants. They have healing benefits to us when we consume them, like fighting inflammation throughout the body, including the brain.
Looking beyond the rainbow, it's also important to include some browns, grays, and blacks to your plate — legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains — as these foods also have their own set of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals that support brain health.
By adopting a plant-based diet, or simply replacing some of the meat on your plate with plants, you may be able to decrease your risk of cognitive decline, ease symptoms of mild depression, and optimize your mood. Your body and brain will both thank you.
Do you, or someone else that you know, need help?
If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others:
Visit the Disaster Distress Helpline, call 1-800-985-5990, or text TalkWithUs to 66746.
Visit the National Domestic Violence Hotline or call 1-800-799-7233 and TTY 1-800-787-3224.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) or TTY: 1-800-487-4889
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ncbi.nlm.nih.gov - Arachidonic acid: Physiological roles and potential health benefits – A review
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov - Vegans Report Less Stress and Anxiety than Omnivores
cdc.gov - What is ADHD?
pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov - Dietary patterns are associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms among preschoolers in mainland China
academic.oup.com - Dietary Pattern in Midlife and Cognitive Impairment in Late Life: A Prospective Study of Chinese Adults
euronews.com - A Vegan Diet Makes You- Happier And More Productive At Work Says Study
clinicaltrials.gov - Short Term Choline and Cardiovascular Health
vegetariantimes.com - Feed your brain
sunshinebehavioralhealth.com - Non-12-Step Rehab Programs