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The Baffling Connection Between Vegetarianism and Depression

Baffling Connection Between Vegetarianism and Depression

Is Vegetarianism causing Depression in vegans? New research tells how.

I have a lot of vegetarian friends and most of them are happy. For example, my colleague Mickey is a bundle of energy and laughs a lot. It’s always fun to argue over beers with my exercise physiologist pal David about whether vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters. And working with my former graduate student Shelly was a hoot when we were combing back issues of the tabloid press for stories about human-animal interactions. (See, for example, “Heavy Metal Music Turns Poodle Into Vicious Killer.”)

Thus, I was surprised to learn from a new review article by Daniel Rosenfeld of Cornell University in the journal Appetite that reported vegetarians are more likely to be depressed than meat-eaters. Intrigued, I took a deeper look at this body of research. I located 11 peer-reviewed papers on the topic published between 2007 and 2018. Rosenfeld was right.

Read 9 Basic Foods That Treat Depression Better Than Medication

Here’s what I found in each of them:

Research Linking Vegetarianism and Depression

  • longitudinal study of 14,247 young women found that 30 percent of vegetarians and semi-vegetarians had experienced depression in the previous 12 months, compared to 20 percent of non-vegetarian women. (Baines, 2007)
The Baffling Connection Between Vegetarianism and Depression
  • Researchers examined mental health issues among a representative sample of 4,116 Germans including vegetarians, predominantly vegetarians, and non-vegetarians. The subjects were matched on demographic and socioeconomic variables. More vegetarians than meat-eaters suffered from depressive disorders in the previous month, the previous year, and over their lifetimes. (Here is the full text.)
  • In a British study, 9,668 men who were partners of pregnant women took the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. Seven per cent of the vegetarians obtained scores indicating severe depression compared to four percent of non-vegetarians.
  • In a 2018 study of 90,000 adults, French researchers examined the impact of giving up various food groups on depressive symptoms among meat eaters, vegans, true vegetarians, and vegetarians who ate fish. The incidence of depression increased with each food group that was given up. People who had given up at least three of four animal-related food groups (red meat, poultry, fish, and dairy) were at nearly two-and-a-half times greater risk to suffer from depression.
  • Investigators from the College of William and Mary examined depression among 6,422 college students. Vegetarian and semi-vegetarian students scored significantly higher than the omnivores on the Center for Epidemiologic Depression Scale.     
  • In 2014, Austrian researchers published an elegant study of individuals who varied in their diets—330 vegetarians, 330 people who consumed a lot of meat, 330 omnivores who ate less meat, and 330 people who consumed a little meat but ate mostly fruits and veggies. The subjects were carefully matched for sex, age, and socio-economic status. The vegetarians were about twice as likely as the other groups to suffer from a mental illness such as anxiety and depression. (Here is the full text of the paper.)
  • A study of 140 women found that the odds of depression were twice as great in women consuming less than the recommended intake of meat per week. (The researchers also found that women eating more than recommended amount were also likely to be depressed.)
  • An article published in the journal Neuropsychobiolgy reported that the frequency of Seasonal Affective Disorder was four times higher among Finnish vegetarians and three times higher in Dutch vegetarians than in meat eaters.

Read The Difference Between Sadness And Depression

Contrary Results

The eight studies above, which involved a total of 131,125 subjects, found that vegetarians are more likely than meat eaters to suffer from depression. However, I also located three studies involving 1,244 subjects that came to different a conclusion.

  •  A 2012 study published in the journal Appetite examined the mental health of 486 vegans, vegetarians, semi-vegetarian, and non-vegetarians. These researchers found no meaningful differences in depression scores between the groups. (Here is the full text.)
  • Researchers from Benedictine University reported that, among 620 subjects recruited from diet-related social networks, there were no differences in depression scores among vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores. The meat-eaters did, however, have higher anxiety and stress scores than the vegetarians and vegans. (Here is the full text.)
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Hal Herzog Ph.D.

Hal Herzog has been investigating the complex psychology of our interactions with other species for more than two decades. He is particularly interested in how people negotiate real-world ethical dilemmas, and he has studied animal activists, cockfighters, animal researchers, and circus animal trainers. An award-winning teacher and researcher, he has written more than 100 articles and book chapters. His research has been published in journals such as Science, The American Psychologist, The Journal of the Royal Society, The American Scholar, New Scientist, Anthrozo's, BioScience, The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, and Animal Behavior. His work has been covered by Newsweek, Slate, Salon, National Public Radio, Scientific American, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune and many other newspapers. In 2013, he was given the Distinguished Scholar Award by the International Society for Anthrozoology.View Author posts