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How a Vegetarian Diet Can Affect Your Mental Health

How a Vegetarian Diet Can Affect Your Mental Health

In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Toula brings her non-Greek fiance Ian to a family get-together, hoping her tight-knit clan will accept him. When Aunt Voula offers to have Ian over for dinner, Toula intervenes: “Ian is a vegetarian. He doesn’t eat meat.” Voula is stunned. She turns to Toula, exclaiming, “What do you mean he don’t eat no meat!” The room goes silent, then Voula says: “Oh … That’s okay! I make lamb!”

Ian’s vegetarianism makes for a good joke, but for many vegetarians (about five percent of Americans), it’s no laughing matter. A study in the Journal of Affective Disorders looked at the mental health of nearly 10,000 men and found vegetarians averaged higher depression scores than non-vegetarians. And a 2007 study of Australian women in their 20s found seven percent more semi-vegetarians and vegetarians had depressive symptoms compared to non-vegetarians.

We know vegetarians come out ahead in terms of heart health and longevity, but nutritional short-falls in the diet may negatively affect mood: vegetarians get less vitamin B12, certain omega-3 fatty acids, zinc and iron than meat-eaters. Deficiencies of those nutrients have been tied to depression.

So, if you’re a vegetarian, choose B12-fortified soy and rice products. Walnuts, spinach and flaxseeds contain omega-3s; nuts and wheat germ deliver zinc; and legumes dish up iron. Plus: take a multivitamin (1/2 twice a day).

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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