Going vegetarian or vegan may ward off diabetes and heart disease, but these diets could have a little-known dark side. Here’s how to stay healthy if you’re not ready to give up your veggie lifestyle.
For years, low-carb, high-protein diets that relied heavily on animal products were the “it” weight loss plans. Even now, many people remain on the Paleo bandwagon. That said, more than ever, people are shunning meat and dairy and committing to vegan and vegetarian lifestyles.
Blame it on recent documentaries like “What The Health” and “Cowspiracy.” You can even trace it back to Michael Pollan’s 2008 bestseller “In Defense of Food,” in which he advises, “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” While arguably one-sided, these pro-vegan films and books have done a fantastic job educating the public about the benefits of going meat-free. Not only do vegetarians have lower rates of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure, research suggests plant-loving folks may have an easier time losing weight and may even live longer.
But it’s not all good news in Veggie-ville, according to a recent Bristol University study. It claims vegetarians and vegans are more likely to be depressed than carnivores. The study authors hypothesize this is due to the lack of vitamin B12 (found in red meat) and omega-3 fatty acids (abundant in fatty fish like salmon and tuna) in their diets. Deficiencies of both nutrients have been associated with depression.
To come to this finding, the authors reviewed survey data from 9,700 British men, 350 of whom were vegans or vegetarians. The men filled out questionnaires about their daily diets, typical moods, financial burdens, and marital status, among other things. Even after controlling for lifestyle circumstances that could influence happiness, vegetarians and vegans were almost twice as likely to suffer from depression than meat-eaters.
While this study only tested a correlation between depression and a meat-free diet in the male population, women should still take note. Previous studies have found that female vegetarians are more likely than their meat-eating counterparts to suffer from depression and anxiety. But thankfully, you don’t have to turn your back on your preferred way of eating to keep the blues at bay. There are a number of ways to ensure you’re consuming enough omega-3s and B12. Here, everything you need to know:
Adding B12 to your diet
Not only can skimping on B12 potentially lead to depression, Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD, says it can also lead to anemia, a condition that occurs when you don’t have enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen to your tissues.
To ensure you get enough of this vital nutrient to your diet, you should regularly eat foods fortified with the nutrient, pop a daily supplement, or even do both. Since B12 is a water-soluble vitamin, your body will simply excrete what it doesn’t need.
Increasing your intake of omega-3s
Sure, things like walnuts and chia seeds contain omega-3 fat, but they contain a different type of omega-3 than salmon and tuna. While fatty fish and other things from the sea, like algae, contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), nuts and seeds contain something called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA).
Since sources of ALA are abundant and, not to mention, 100% vegan-friendly, many plant-based dieters rely on ALA as their sole source of omega-3s—which is a mistake. Yes, the body converts it to DHA and EPA (the two fats that help ward off depression), but it’s a flawed process. Less than 5% of ALA consumed will convert to DHA, according to a Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care report. To ensure you’re giving your body what it needs, we suggest taking an algae-based DHA-EPA supplement, and adding ALA rich foods to your diet as “extra credit.”