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Food for Thought: Plant Based Diets and Mental Wellness


BETTER MENTAL HEALTH

Believe it or not, optimal mental health is inextricably linked to a health-promoting plant-based diet. We can find evidence of this in the copious amounts of research done over the years on the connection between mental health and diets high in plant foods. For example, in a 2015 study, vegans reported less stress and anxiety than omnivores (Beezhold et al., 2015). Another study conducted in 2010 found that the vegan group reported greater improvements in mental health and vitality compared with the control group (Katcher et al., 2010). Similar findings occurred in a 2013 study where overweight or type 2 diabetic GEICO employees were divided into a control group and a vegan group. The vegan group reported less depression, anxiety, and fatigue and an increase in overall well-being and work productivity (Mishra, 2013). In a more recent 2019 study, it was discovered that plant-based diets restore balance in the gut microbiome (Medawar et al., 2019).

It’s not surprising. Plants are packed with healing fiber, phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. In contrast, animal products (meat, fish, dairy, and eggs) are full of toxic stiff saturated fats, inflammatory omega-6 fats, growth hormones, antibiotics, cholesterol, pathogens, chemicals, contaminants, and unnaturally high levels of the stress hormone cortisol that is released into the animal's bloodstream due to the extreme stress and fear they experience right before they're slaughtered. One study discovered that consuming animal foods increases stress hormone levels in individuals even more than the trauma of losing a spouse (Anderson et al.,1987).


PLANTS AS NATURAL ANTIDEPRESSANTS

According to the PCRM resource "Food and Mood: Eating Plants to Fight the Blues" a study published in Nutrition Journal discovered that vegetarians reported more positive moods than meat eaters. Fruits and vegetables have protective effects on the human brain, whereas animal products have harmful effects. The antioxidants and phytochemicals in plant foods reduce inflammation in brain cells and regulate neurotransmitters. Many individuals who suffer from depression have high levels of the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO), which breaks down key mood-regulating neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. Low levels of these important neurotransmitters result in depression. Interestingly enough, the phytochemical quercetin, which can be found only in plant foods, reduces the activity of MAO in the brain. Quercetin also works as a natural antidepressant, increasing the amount of these key neurotransmitters for a stabilized mood. If you want to boost your mood naturally, then eat plant-based foods high in this phytochemical. These include apples, kale, berries, grapes, and onions.


INFLAMMATION IN THE BRAIN

On the other hand, arachidonic acid (a pro-inflammatory compound found only in animal foods), plays a key role in the formation of cancer and inflammatory diseases such as asthma and arthritis (Bei Wang et al., 2021). Animal products high in arachidonic acid (such as eggs, milk, chicken, and pork) can “adversely impact mental health via a cascade of neuroinflammation,” causing an increase in depression and suicide risk, according to a 2010 study (Beezhold et al., 2010). This flood of harmful chemical reactions results in an overreactive immune response as well as inflammation in the body and brain. Studies show that individuals who steer clear of animal foods high in arachidonic acid report less anxiety, stress, and depression and an overall happier mood.

GOT PROTEIN?

The majority of meat-eaters suffer from “protein anxiety,” a condition in which they constantly worry about not getting enough protein although they’ve never actually experienced a protein deficiency before. According to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), "Of course, the body needs some protein to build and repair body tissues. But protein is widely available in beans, vegetables, and grains. It is almost impossible not to get all the protein you need, even without eating meat, dairy, or eggs." The average woman can absolutely get her 46 grams of protein per day on a plant-based diet, and so can the average man get his needed 56 grams per day. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), most Americans actually are getting almost double the amount of protein they need. High-protein diets heavily burden the bones, kidneys, and liver, resulting in an increased risk for heart disease and cancer (Delimaris, 2013).


Additionally, many omnivores don’t realize that the majority of the animals they eat for protein originally got their protein from plants to begin with. Therefore, it makes logical sense to eat directly from the source and cut out the middlemen (the animals) in order to maximize efficiency and prevent chronic illness.

Better mental and physical health aren’t the only benefits of eating a plant-based diet. Vegetarian (and especially vegan) diets are better for the planet, help reverse the climate crisis, reclaim native foods and cultures, dismantle racism, reduce animal cruelty, and create a more compassionate world. If reading this inspires you to eat more plant foods, then check out these delicious plant-powered whole-foods recipes below. You can also follow me, Chiara, on Instagram! @bloom.with.chiara


RECIPES

Chef Katie Mae, Chef Cathy Fisher, Chef Ramses Bravo, Medical Medium, Luz Calvo and

Catriona Rueda Esquibel, The Vegan Nigerian, Mexican Made Meatless, Chef Tabitha Brown, Vegan Richa, Sweet Potato Soul, The Black Vegan Company, WoonHeng, VegNews, Forks Over Knives, PCRM, FullyRaw Kristina, The Plant-Based Wok, Jessica in the Kitchen, Kris Carr, and Dora’s Table.


DOCUMENTARIES

They’re Trying to Kill Us (Vimeo)

What the Health (Netflix)

The Game Changers (Netflix)

Forks Over Knives (YouTube)

Cowspiracy (Netflix)

Seaspiracy (Netflix)


REFERENCES

Anderson, K. E., Rosner, W., Khan, M. S., New, M. I., Pang, S. Y., Wissel, P. S., & Kappas, A. (1987). Diet-hormone interactions: protein/carbohydrate ratio alters reciprocally the plasma levels of testosterone and cortisol and their respective binding globulins in man. Life Sciences, 40(18), 1761–1768. https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/0024-3205(87)90086-5


Beezhold, B. L., Johnston, C. S., & Daigle, D. R. (2010). Vegetarian diets are associated with healthy mood states: a cross-sectional study in Seventh Day Adventist adults. Nutrition Journal, 9, 26–32.

https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1186/1475-2891-9-26


Beezhold, B., Radnitz, C., Rinne, A., & DiMatteo, J. (2015). Vegans report less stress and anxiety than omnivores. Nutritional Neuroscience, 18(7), 289–296. https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1179/1476830514Y.0000000164


Bei Wang, Lujin Wu, Jing Chen, Lingli Dong, Chen Chen, Zheng Wen, Jiong Hu, Ingrid Fleming, & Dao Wen Wang. (2021). Metabolism pathways of arachidonic acids: mechanisms and potential therapeutic targets. Signal Transduction and Targeted Therapy, 6(1), 1–30. https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/s41392-020-00443w


Delimaris, I. (2013). Adverse Effects Associated with Protein Intake above the Recommended Dietary Allowance for Adults. ISRN Nutrition, 2013, 126929. https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.5402/2013/126929


Katcher, H. I., Ferdowsian, H. R., Hoover, V. J., Cohen, J. L., & Barnard, N. D. (2010). A worksite vegan nutrition program is well-accepted and improves health-related quality of life and work productivity. Annals of Nutrition & Metabolism, 56(4), 245–252. https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1159/000288281


Medawar, E., Huhn, S., Villringer, A., & Veronica Witte, A. (2019). The effects of plant-based diets on the body and the brain: a systematic review. Translational Psychiatry, 9(1), 226. https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/s41398-019-0552-0


Mishra, S., Xu, J., Agarwal, U., Gonzales, J., Levin, S., & Barnard, N. D. (2013). A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a plant-based nutrition program to reduce body weight and cardiovascular risk in the corporate setting: the GEICO study. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(7), 718–724.

https://doi-org.brandman.idm.oclc.org/10.1038/ejcn.2013.92


Mondala, M. (2020, Oct 9). Going Plant-Based for Your Mental Health? Here Are Some Things to Keep in Mind. Forks Over Knives. https://www.forksoverknives.com/wellness/mental-health-plant-based-doctors-tips/



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