Many who choose a vegan diet are aware of the benefits for improving physical health and reversing diseases. We’ve read the China Study and How Not to Die, watched Forks over Knives, and may have personally met people who reversed heart disease, diabetes, or cancer through a plant-based diet.
When I became vegan, I wondered if a plant-based diet also had an impact on emotional health. As I dove into the research, I discovered that the same plant-strong diet that contributes to a healthier immune system and that lessens risk of many medical diseases is also helpful for improving our mental and emotional states.
Increased rates of depression and anxiety during pandemic
According to the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH), 7% of the U.S. population experienced an episode of clinical depression in 2017. Rates of depression in the U.S. increased more than threefold following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. Levels of anxiety and stress have also escalated during this pandemic. Increasing numbers of people are seeking mental health treatment due to these challenges.
Lifestyle, nutrition, and emotional well-being
How do we address emotional difficulties such as anxiety and depression? In addition to professional treatment, such as psychotherapy or medication, there are many lifestyle practices that support improved mental health. For example, exercise and meditation are well-known for reducing depression and improving mood. Social connections and engaging in pleasurable activities are also beneficial for thriving emotionally.
However, it is easy to overlook the impact of nutrition on mental health. And yet, should it surprise us that the same nutrient-dense plant foods that nourish our body also support our emotional thriving? Several studies found that individuals who ate more servings of fruits and vegetables on a daily basis reported greater emotional well-being and life satisfaction, as well as less emotional distress, compared to those who ate lesser amounts. These studies suggest that 7 to 10 servings per day may be optimal.
In addition, a study of young adults found that those who consumed more servings of fruits and vegetables scored higher on measures of emotional flourishing, including creativity and sense of purpose, than those who consumed lesser amounts. And the same individuals reported higher levels of these positive mood states on the days they ate more fruits and vegetables compared to the days they ate lesser amounts.
Cross-sectional studies of vegans and vegetarians found that both of these groups demonstrated lower scores on measures of depression, anxiety, and emotional distress compared to omnivores. In addition, omnivores who were asked to eliminate meat, poultry, and fish had improved mood scores after two weeks on a vegetarian diet, compared to control subjects who continued eating meat.
In a randomized, controlled study conducted in a corporate setting, participants who were instructed to eat a vegan diet for health and weight loss not only had improved health measures, but also had decreased depression and anxiety and improved emotional well-being compared to participants in a control group who did not change their diet.
Why does a plant-based diet help mood? Research suggests that the nutrients and antioxidants in whole plant foods promote a healthy balance of feel-good neurotransmitters. In addition, plant foods have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, which appears to have a beneficial impact on mood. In contrast, meat, eggs, dairy, and processed foods are associated with higher levels of inflammatory compounds, which may negatively impact mental and emotional states.
Greater happiness and peace
Evaluating my own personal experience, I have enjoyed greater overall happiness since starting a plant-based diet many years ago. Based on the above research, I would guess that eating a healthier, high-nutrient diet, while reducing the processed and inflammatory foods that were previously part of my Standard American Diet, has contributed to my improved mood.
But I have discovered emotional benefits beyond the biochemical effects of my food. Going vegan has led to an inner transformation that is so much more than merely a change in diet. Choosing not to consume animal products has contributed to a sense of freedom and peace that extends beyond the ups and downs of daily life.
Our well-being is interconnected with the health of the planet
While there are many things in life that we don’t have control over, we can make daily lifestyle choices to support our emotional resilience and well-being. In addition to regular exercise, meditation, and meaningful social connections, we can enjoy a vegan diet packed with nutrient-dense plant foods. And the bonus is that in choosing this life-nourishing diet, we also contribute to a more sustainable, healthy, and compassionate world.
Note: An adapted version of this article was published March 30, 2021 in Main Street Vegan Blog.
Angela Crawford, Ph.D. is a psychologist and transformational coach. She is passionate about empowering people to create lives that nurture body, mind, and spirit. Dr. Crawford is certified as a Master Vegan Lifestyle Coach and Educator, and has a Plant-Based Nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies at eCornell. She is currently doing research for a book on the emotional and psychological benefits of a vegan lifestyle.