Watching the huge increase of plant-based dieters, the studies surrounding plant-based diets have become of great importance.
Especially to me, as a former eight-year vegan.
There seems to be some anecdotal evidence of plant-based diets leading to depression, and possibly some scientific evidence to back it up, so I’m taking a close look at the science to see if we have anything at all to shed light on this subject.
The following study surprised not only me, but the very researchers who conducted it.
And it may surprise you too.
Researchers out of France set out to study the association between vegetarian diet and depressive symptoms.
Their findings, published in the November 2018 issue of the journal Nutrients, were not what they expected.
Using a massive database of subjects (90,380) from the Constances cohort, the researchers defined depressive symptoms as a score of greater than or equal to 19 on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies-Depression scale (CES-D) and determined diet types via food questionnaire.
They then determined associations between diet type and depressive symptoms after adjusting for other factors, such as socio-demographics, alcohol and tobacco consumption, physical activity, other foods, and any health-related concerns.
Now for the surprising part.
The researchers themselves believed there would be an association between vegetarian diets and depressive symptoms.
And they were correct.
But what they didn’t believe they would find changed their outlook on everything.
They found that the exclusion of any food group increased the odds of experiencing depressive symptoms when compared to an omnivorous diet.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians showed a 36% odds increase.
Pesco-vegetarians showed a 43% odds increase.
Those who excluded meat showed a 37% odds increase.
Those who excluded fish showed a 40% odds increase.
Those who excluded vegetables showed a 71% odds increase!
See the whole list below:
This is just the start, however.
Where it gets REALLY interesting is what they found among study subjects when additional foods were excluded from their diets.
Each additional food excluded resulted in HIGHER odds of experiencing depressive symptoms when compared to an omnivorous diet.
Check out this chart. It’s astounding:
Yes, you are reading that correctly.
Exclusion of just one item results in an odds increase of only 20%.
However, exclusion of three or more items results in an odds increase of a whopping 125%!
So what does any of this mean?
These results give us food for thought more than anything else right now.
But it is extremely valuable food for thought.
The researchers speculate there could be a number of reasons that explain these results, which again went against their hypothesis.
One such reason could be as simple as a lack of essential nutrients, such as iron or vitamin B12. This is merely speculation, however. It may also be harder to pinpoint it to a specific nutrient since the odds went up regardless of food type excluded.
Another potential reason could be that depressive symptoms show up before a person decides to exclude foods from their diet, thus explaining the greater odds of depressive symptoms showing up in those who have chosen to exclude foods.
In other words, it is possible those experiencing depression are more likely to exclude foods from their diet than those who do not. This needs to be studied further to see if there is any validity to that, though.
My speculative guess?
I’ll throw a third guess into the mix, this coming from someone (me) who ate a very restrictive (vegan) diet for a number of years.
Restriction can be very difficult. It can go beyond the food you eat or don’t eat and the nutrients you do or do not consume. Trust me, any vegan will tell you it is possible to get every vitamin and mineral you need on a vegan diet.
For many years, I said that myself.
And it may be true, mind you, perhaps with the exception of vitamin B12. Now, whether or not plant-based foods have the same bioavailability as animal-based foods is a discussion for another time. And whether or not there are some plant-based foods that lead to poor health outcomes is also another discussion.
The fact is, with some supplementation of B12 and perhaps some others, it is statistically possible to get the nutrients you need from plants, at least on paper if not in practice.
This theory comes down to restriction.
Any time you force restriction on yourself and force yourself to use your willpower to resist, you could risk your positive feelings and emotions. In many instances, this is a necessity for society to function. In terms of diet, however, it might not be.
Some plant-based eaters may not have to use any willpower at all, and good for them. But, given the rise of very sophisticated plant-based “meats” my eyes tell me this is not the case for a lot of you.
Beyond that, there is a social cost to plant-based eating.
Many plant-based dieters will note that socializing is more difficult, finding food at restaurants is more difficult, and finding a place in the community because of these things can be more difficult (and having a place in the community has been shown to have a positive effect on mental/emotional state).
If you are making life unnecessarily harder on yourself, to me it stands to reason you could be increasing the odds of experiencing depression.
Now, none of this means you should shun a plant-based diet. Some communities, like the Seventh-Day Adventist community, which adheres to a vegetarian diet, do not show increased odds of depression. However, they adhere to this diet as a community, which could help them.
They get not only the added benefits of community relationships, but they also do not have to buck any other societal trends which could otherwise make socializing in public or with their families more difficult.
These are all just theories, however. Some may ring true to some of you and not others. Or all of you or none at all.
It’s just an observation from personal experience. NOT science.
You may even experience these “difficulties” while excluding certain foods from your diet but are still able to find a way to be happy, or even happier, in those circumstances.
Each case can be unique.
The greater point here is that these things are not always cut and dry, so continue to research and find what is best for you. Speak with your licensed health practitioner and make your best decision for YOU, not for anybody else.
As for me, I will stick to what I have come to call The Caruso Foundation, which you can read more about here. It has resulted in my best health and corresponded with my greatest happiness, so I am going to stick with it.
Unless I discover something better.
Because open-mindedness could result in the greatest health outcomes of them all.
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