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A story in Metro UK this week says vegetarians and vegans ‘are more likely to be depressed and meat is good for mental health’. This is, of course, nonsense.

The story implies that eating meat could help your mental health, but that’s not what the study it was based on actually says – a classic case of sensational headlines exaggerating the scientific research.

Scientific study – part-funded by the beef industry

The review this story was based on looked at 18 studies, with a total of 160,257 participants, of which 8,584 avoided meat. 

The results were mixed with 11 studies linking avoiding meat to poorer mental health, four found no links and three showed that meat-abstainers had better outcomes. 

So a mixed bag of results in this study, funded in part by a grant from the Beef Checkoff, through the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. 

‘No evidence’

The authors clearly state: “Across all studies, there was no evidence to support a causal relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and any psychological outcomes.”

So avoiding meat doesn’t cause depression, a number of studies actually show the opposite is true, but that’s not going to get in the way of a good story. 

The authors said some of the studies failed to include important ‘confounders’ such as race, ethnic or religious affiliation, smoking, alcohol use, physical activity etc. This, they acknowledge, is a limitation of their study and makes their conclusion, that avoiding meat is not supported as a strategy to benefit mental health, somewhat questionable.

 Ignore the misleading headlines, a varied vegan diet is good for your body and your mind (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

The disorder comes first

Interestingly, they do say how one study found that the average age at which a meat-free diet is adopted was around 30, some five years after the average age of the onset of depression – around 25.

This concurs with other studies showing that some people who adopt a ‘clean-eating’ style of meat-free diet (as opposed to ethical or true vegetarians and vegans) are more likely to have eating habits related to disordered eating. 

In other words, the disorder comes first, and true vegetarians and vegans are the healthiest in regards to weight and eating.

Avoiding meat is beneficial

If you look at the peer-reviewed science, it is clear that avoiding meat is beneficial not just for your physical health, considerably lowering your risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes and some cancers, but mental health too.

Research looking at mood states in Seventh Day Adventists found that meat-abstention was linked to more favourable outcomes, a fact not covered in the press story but discussed in the scientific review.

Other research shows that vegans report less stress and anxiety than meat and dairy-eaters. The authors of this study conclude that: “A strict plant-based diet does not appear to negatively impact mood, in fact, reduction of animal food intake may have mood benefits”.

Ignore the misleading headlines, a varied vegan diet is good for your body and your mind!

To find out more, read Mood Food by Juliet Gellatley.

This article was originally published by Viva!

Dr. Justine Butler of Viva!

Dr. Butler graduated from Bristol University with a PhD in molecular biology and a BSc First Class (hons) in Biochemistry from UWE before joining Viva! in 2005. She currently researches, writes and campaigns for Viva!Health.