Science : Is vegetarianism a danger to mental health?

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Today, eating less meat is considered a smart choice, for many reasons: for the benefit of health, respect for animals and the preservation of the planet’s resources. But how far should we go? Vegetarianism is an option that some people choose, but the benefits and dangers of this type of diet must be weighed. A recent meta-analysis of 18 investigations involving a total of 160,000 Americans provides results that call for caution.

The researchers of this work published in Critical Reviews in Science and Nutrition were looking to know if, as previous studies suggest, people who avoid meat consumption have a greater probability of developing a mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety or self-injurious behaviors (from self-harm until committing suicide). According to the results, of the 18 studies analyzed, eleven reveal a relationship between vegetarianism and this type of disorder, three indicate an inverse association (being a vegetarian entails a lower risk of suffering from mental illness), and the remaining four do not support Sign neither statement.

Given these results, the authors conclude that it is necessary to adopt a moderate attitude towards food. However, they point out that these are correlations and that no cause and effect relationship can be identified from these 18 investigations. In his opinion, it is not necessarily the meatless diet that promotes disorders, but people with mental illnesses could resort to vegetarianism for various reasons (in particular, because they could perceive this type of diet as more beneficial for their health and, therefore, protective, apart from being more just and ethically defensible).

To date, this type of “assessment” of vegetarianism should be viewed with caution. Thus, people should not be discouraged from reducing their meat consumption. Our diet is too carnivorous and it is possible to consume less beef, chicken or pork without jeopardizing physical or mental health. As is often the case, the best option is moderation.

Sébastien Bohler

Reference: “Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena”. Urska Dobersek et al, published online in Critical Reviews in Science and Nutrition, on April 20, 2020.

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