Major depressive disorders are the second largest worldwide contributor to the number of years a person lives in suboptimal health (
Many factors can influence why some people may experience depression, including what they eat.
Anecdotally, some people report improved mood and less anxiety when eating a vegan diet. However, others report worsened symptoms (
In this article, I’ll review what the latest studies have to say about veganism and depression, including if there’s a link between the two.
What you eat can influence how you feel, both physically and mentally.
When it comes to your mood, more than 50 studies conducted in various countries suggest that what a person eats may influence how likely they are to experience depression (
For instance, a large randomized control trial (RCT) — the gold standard in nutrition research — looked at the diets of people with major depressive symptoms.
It found that people with depression who followed a prescribed diet high in whole grains, lean protein, low fat dairy, and plant foods were four times more likely to experience remission than those who consumed a diet lower in those foods and higher in ultra-processed foods (
The drop in depressive symptoms was independent of changes in physical activity or body weight, and those who improved their diet the most reported the greatest reduction in depressive symptoms (
A recent review further supports the notion that eating a high quality diet, regardless of whether it is plant-based, may reduce the risk of depression by up to 23% (
In these studies, the high quality diet was typically defined as one rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, olive oil, fish, and other seafood (
Keep in mind that these study results don’t mean that a diet low in those foods causes depression, though. Depression is caused or influenced by many various factors, with diet being only one of them.
That said, a well-rounded and nutritious diet does appear to help at least some people experience fewer symptoms of depression, so altering your diet may be a helpful strategy worth considering.
Finding support for depression symptoms
If you need to talk to someone right away, help is available:
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- If you’re living with a mental health or substance use disorder, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 800-662-4357.
- If you’re a young person of color, text STEVE to 741741.
- Call the Trans Lifeline Hotline at 877-565-8860 (US) or 877-330-6366 (Canada).
- Not in the U.S.? Find a helpline in your country with Befrienders Worldwide.
If you’re not currently in crisis but you’re considering working with a mental health professional, these resources may be able to help you get started:
A well-rounded, nutritious diet high in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and lean proteins may help reduce your symptoms of depression or lower the likelihood that you’ll experience this mental illness.
A vegan diet tends to be naturally richer in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains — foods that are all predominant in the high quality diets that studies link to a lower risk of depression (
A higher intake of fruits and vegetables has also been independently linked to a lower risk of depression and overall better mental wellbeing (
Vegan diets tend to be rich in antioxidants and other beneficial nutrients shown to be protective against depression and depressive symptoms (
Currently, a vegan diet is not typically recommended as a way to treat depression.
If you’d like to give it a try nonetheless, I encourage you to seek guidance from a registered dietitian (RD) to make sure that your diet fulfills all of your nutrient requirements.
That’s because a poorly-planned vegan diet might not provide you with enough of the nutrients essential for optimal brain health, such as vitamin B-12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. That means making sure your diet is well-planned is a must (
If you’re worried that working with an RD is outside of your budget, remember that many RDs accept health insurance and Medicare or can adjust fees based on a sliding scale to help make their services more affordable.
A vegan diet seems to improve symptoms of depression for some people but worsen them for others. If you’re considering giving a vegan diet a try, make sure it’s well-planned so you don’t experience any nutrient deficiencies.
Some studies report that people eating a vegetarian or vegan diet may have an increased risk of depression and other mental illnesses.
For example, research has found an association between diets that eliminate entire food groups, including vegetarian and vegan diets, with eating disorders like orthorexia nervosa and anorexia nervosa (
Trying to “do it right” when it comes to nutrition may feel tempting, but it can backfire.
If you are preoccupied with food or your weight, feel guilt surrounding your food choices, or routinely engage in restrictive diets, consider reaching out for support. These behaviors may indicate a disordered relationship with food or an eating disorder.
Disordered eating and eating disorders can affect anyone, regardless of gender identity, race, age, socioeconomic status, body size, or other identities.
They can be caused by any combination of biological, social, cultural, and environmental factors — not just by exposure to diet culture.
Feel empowered to talk with a qualified healthcare professional, such as a registered dietitian, if you’re struggling.
You can also chat, call, or text anonymously with trained volunteers at the National Eating Disorders Association helpline for free or explore the organization’s free and low cost resources.
Experts believe that the lack of consensus in the study findings can be explained by various factors. For instance, it’s possible that people with an already existing mental health issue may be more likely to try a vegan diet as a way to reduce their symptoms.
Another possibility is that people with depression have personality factors that may make them more likely to empathize with animals. As a result, they may stop eating meat and other animal products to live in accordance with their personal ethics (
The nutrient content of the diet may be yet another factor to consider.
For instance, omega-3s, choline, vitamins B-6 and B-12, and folate — as well as certain specific animo acids — are necessary to produce serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Those are three neurotransmitters (your body’s chemical messengers) that help regulate mood (
A well-planned vegan diet can provide enough of all of these nutrients. However, a poorly-planned one may lack sufficient amounts of the nutrients required for optimal brain functioning (
Most of the current studies don’t mention the participants’ nutrient status or the composition of the vegan diet they ate. Therefore, we need studies that are better designed before we can make strong conclusions.
Until more is known, people with depression who wish to try a vegan diet should consider reaching out to a RD specializing in plant-based diets to ensure that they meet all of their nutrient needs.
And remember, diet changes aren’t proven to cure mental health conditions, so feel empowered to reach out to a healthcare professional for additional support.
It’s unclear whether a well-planned vegan diet contributes to depression. If you have depressive symptoms and wish to try a vegan diet, it’s especially important to speak with a dietitian to make sure it is well-planned to prevent nutrient deficiencies.
Experts suggest that choline, vitamins B-6 and B-12, and folate, as well as certain amino acids, are essential for your body to produce sufficient amounts of the neurotransmitters needed to regulate your mood (
Long-chain omega-3s also appear to help regulate dopamine and serotonin levels, which is why they are believed to help decrease symptoms of both depression and anxiety (
A vegan diet tends to be lower in some of these nutrients — particularly vitamin B-12 and long-chain omega-3s (
Therefore, vegans should take special attention to ensure a sufficient intake of these nutrients, either through fortified foods or supplements.
Vegan foods that are naturally rich in long-chain omega-3s are limited to algae and algae oil. However, you may help your body produce slightly more of these long-chain omega-3s by eating foods rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), such as:
- chia seeds
- hemp seeds
That said, your body’s ability to convert ALA to long-chain omega-3s appears to be limited. Therefore, an algae oil supplement may also be beneficial (
It’s also worth remembering that high quality diets, regardless of the type, were the ones linked to a lower risk of depression (
Not all vegan diets are equally high in quality. To maximize your benefits, try favoring whole or minimally-processed plant foods over ultra-processed ones, such as meat and cheese substitutes, sweets, and pre-packaged vegan meals or snacks.
And always keep in mind that your diet isn’t the only factor playing a role in depression. Therefore, it’s important to explore all of the treatment avenues available to you together with a qualified mental health professional.
To reduce your risk of depression on a vegan diet, it’s worth making sure your diet is made up mostly of whole and minimally-processed plant foods. It should also include fortified foods or supplements.
The relationship between veganism and depression is currently unclear. A vegan diet sometimes appears helpful at reducing symptoms of depression, but other times seems linked to a higher risk of depression.
If you’re experiencing depression and are curious about giving a vegan diet a try, consider one that prioritizes minimally-processed plant foods and provides sufficient amounts of all essential nutrients, including vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3s.
You may need to take supplements or choose fortified foods to make sure you consume enough of the nutrients that support brain health and mood regulation, as vegan diets can lack them.
Reaching out to an RD to ensure that your vegan diet is well-planned and meets all of your nutrient needs can be helpful.
If you’ve made changes to your diet and are still not feeling better or if your symptoms are severe and affecting your day-to-day life, make sure to discuss other options, including medication, with a qualified mental healthcare provider.
Just one thing
Try this today: If you’re new to a vegan diet but cannot afford to book an appointment with a registered dietitian, I suggest you check out the Vegan Society. It’s a great tool to help you get started and includes free resources created by RDs specializing in a vegan diet.