If you’ve ever wondered, Can veganism help with stress? You’re not alone. We get asked this a lot these days.
Our health and wellbeing is closely intertwined with what we eat, so it makes sense that our dietary decisions could impact on our stress levels. Many vegans have reported that they feel calmer after transitioning, but is there any solid evidence behind this? After all, we all know plenty of vegans who seem anything but calm, right?
We decided to take a look.
Comparing meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians
In order to find out whether going vegan is beneficial to stress levels, it’s important to look at comparisons between different dietary choices.
A recent study showed that people who ate a plant-based diet were less likely to suffer the effects of anxiety. A total of 620 participants – a mix of vegans, vegetarians and omnivores – completed a survey about their mood, and the results were positive for those following a plant-based diet. (1)
Both male and female vegans had lower anxiety scores and stress levels than the non-vegans who were questioned, and the good news doesn’t end there.
Another piece of research took a group of omnivores and divided the participants into three control groups based on the diet they would eat during the trial: meat eaters, fish eaters and vegetarians. Participants completed a survey about their moods both at the beginning and end of the study.
Researchers found that those who switched to a plant-based diet showed significant improvements in their stress levels in just two weeks. One reason for the dramatic change is thought to be the lowered dietary levels of arachidonic acid. (2)
While omega-3 fatty acids are believed to have a positive effect on mental health, the opposite is true of long-chain omega-6 fatty acids such as arachidonic acid (AA).
This long-chain fatty acid is found only in meat and it is often linked with brain inflammation. This, in turn, could lead to mood swings, depression, anxiety and stress.
So, as AA is not found in plant foods, vegans are naturally avoiding something that has been proven to affect mood. Good news!
What other differences are there with a plant-based diet?
Removing arachidonic acid from your diet seems to have clear benefits when it comes to improving mood, but what else changes when you decide to leave animal products on the shelf?
One suggested reason for vegans having better moods is that they eat lots of foods that are high in antioxidants. This can help to reduce the oxidising stress on the brain, which has the added bonus of improving moods.
Blood pressure, cholesterol and weight
Another of the well-documented health benefits of enjoying a vegan diet is lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and a healthier weight and body mass index (BMI). The knock on effect of having good physical health is that you are less likely to suffer from stress, anxiety and other mental health problems.
Things for vegans to be mindful of…
While there are some clear benefits to going vegan when it comes to mood, there are some things that you need to be aware of:
Concerns over low levels of omega-3
There is thought to be a connection between consuming low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and a variety of mental health conditions. These include depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and postpartum depression.
It is possibly this deficiency that causes some vegans to be more likely to suffer from stress and depression than omnivores. However, vegans can easily incorporate adequate levels of omega-3 fatty acids with a little knowledge.
Where to get your omega-3 as a vegan
Although omega-3 is usually found in fish and shellfish, there are some fantastic sources for those who enjoy a plant-based diet. If you are looking to incorporate more of the good fatty acids into your diet to help improve your mood and stress levels, try chia seeds, cauliflower, hemp seeds and purslane.
Supplementation is also an option. Get a good vegan DHA/EPA supplement (see link above) and you can take anywhere between 250 mg to 3,000 mg per day.
Not including all the nutrients in your diet can put a vegan at risk of developing depression. In addition to omega-3 fats, important nutrients include vitamin B12, vitamin D and iron.
For more information on meeting your daily requirements, you can check out our nutrition guide for vegans.
Eating disorders are a common form of mental illness and some have argued that people in recovery should not adopt a vegan diet as it can be a way of restricting food.
However, this is not the case for everyone. Some may actually find that it gives them choices of ethical, political, environmental and personal significance. This can remove the focus from calorie counting and help them to regain control of their eating habits.
READ NEXT: ENVIRONMENTAL REASONS TO GO VEGAN
Other vegan mood related findings
The benefits of a vegan diet in relation to stress and mental health is an area that needs further research and this is something that researchers admit themselves. Not only do they need to look at the long-term mental health effects of a plant-based diet, they also need to take other diet and lifestyle factors into account.
However, there are some areas that have been explored:
Mental health in the workplace
Work-related stress is something that most people will experience at some point in life. However, a study has shown that switching to a vegan diet can lower stress levels at work. (3)
The workplace intervention study compared the stress levels of vegans to those of non-vegans and the results were positive for those on a plant-based diet. That being said, although the vegans were less stressed, they were also receiving additional support, so this may have impacted on results.
Nutrients linked to reduced stress
Certain vitamins and minerals have been found to reduce stress, so these should be included in your diet regardless of whether you are an omnivore, a vegetarian or a vegan. Nutrients included in the list are B vitamins, calcium, magnesium and potassium. As an added bonus, each of these nutrients has additional benefits for your overall health and wellbeing.
Plant-based foods to beat stress
Similarly, studies have found that certain foodstuffs can help bolster our mental wellbeing, too. This is obvious when you know that certain nutrients can help, but it is the lack of knowledge that often causes people to suffer unnecessarily.
As a vegan, there are steps you can take to take care of your mental health and reduce your stress levels simply by including the right foods in your diet.
The nutritional value of some foods promote good mental health. Seven of the best include bananas, pistachio nuts, cacao, chia seeds, blueberries, spinach and sweet potatoes.
Let’s take a look at each of these to find out how they help.
Cortisol, the stress hormone, is at its highest at the start of the day for most people, so this is when you need something to keep your stress levels to a minimum.
Bananas are the perfect solution, as they contain fiber, potassium, magnesium, vitamin B6 and natural sugars. They also contain an amino acid called tryptophan that is known to reduce levels of stress and anxiety.
Yep, those tasty green nuts can actually help you lower your stress levels, people! Pistachios contain vital phytonutrients and antioxidants that are thought to help with heart health and lower blood pressure. In turn, the lower heart rate will help your body cope with stress far better.
It’s also worth pointing out that even the physical act of shelling these nuts can help with stress as well. Giving your hands something to do will help you relax, and you get a tasty treat at the end, too. Bonus!
Another rich source of tryptophan is cacao. Eating this chocolatey treat will release two feel good hormones called serotonin and dopamine and will provide you with B vitamins, calcium, iron and potassium, too.
Raw forms of cacao are better as they contain seven times more antioxidants than the heated form of cacao, cocoa powder.
READ NEXT: IS COCOA BUTTER VEGAN?
Not only are chia seeds great for reducing stress levels, they also support good cardiovascular health as well. This is because they are rich in B vitamins, calcium, fibre, iron, magnesium and potassium.
Chia seeds can easily be added to cereal or smoothies and are also a fantastic addition when you are baking.
These berries are chock full of phytonutrients and antioxidants, so they are the perfect stress-busters for our bodies. It is thought that blueberries can help build our natural defences which fight off the free radicals often associated with stress.
Blueberries are delicious little balls of goodness, so incorporating them into one of your daily meals won’t be difficult.
Spinach is absolutely packed with nutrients that can help your stress levels and also has many other great health benefits. The nutrients that will keep you calm while boosting your energy levels include B vitamins, vitamin A, iron, magnesium and potassium.
One of those B vitamins found in spinach, along with other green leafy vegetables, is folate. Folate helps the body produce dopamine, a compound commonly associated with pleasure that helps you remain calm.
If you don’t like spinach, then kale is a great alternative (see our comprehensive guide to kale for more). You can use both in cooked meals, smoothies and salads.
Sweet potatoes are a great comfort food that boasts calcium, vitamin B6, potassium and magnesium. Although they have a high carbohydrate content and taste sweet, they will not raise your blood sugar as much as white potatoes and may even halt cravings by lowering your glycemic index.
This is a really versatile ingredient that can be cooked in many ways at any time of the day. Getting a regular dose of sweet potatoes will not only help your mental health, it’ll also boost your overall wellbeing, too.
Other stress reducing ingredients
While the seven aforementioned foods are fantastic and can be used in a variety of ways, you will obviously want to include many more ingredients in your diet to make it varied and nutritious.
If you are making reduced stress levels a key focus in your diet, you might also want to include:
- Pumpkin and pumpkin seeds
- Any leafy greens will also help your stress management and provide you with many more nutrients needed for good general health
You can incorporate many of these ingredients (not the green leafies!) into an amazing overnight oats recipe to kickstart your day.
Learn More Yourself
If you have found this subject interesting, then you can learn more yourself by reading about how a vegan lifestyle can impact positively on your mental and emotional wellbeing.
I recommend ‘The Happy Vegan’, by Russell Simmons with Chris Morrow. Hip hop impresario Simmons shares how combining veganism, conscious eating, yoga, and meditation can reduce stress and give you purpose and focus in your life. It’s a great read, and the title’s pretty good, too!
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that choosing a vegan lifestyle can have a positive effect on your mental and emotional health. By choosing the right foods to include in your diet, you can reduce your stress levels and become a much calmer person. Some of the best ways to achieve this include:
- Eating foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids
- Eating a balanced and varied diet that promotes overall physical and mental wellbeing
- Exercising regularly
- Try yoga
- Staying hydrated
- Getting the right amount of sunlight depending on where you live
If you have any experiences of improving your emotional well-being after switching to a vegan diet or if you have any questions, please feel free to leave you comments below.
About The Author:
Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started happyhappyvegan.com back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.
Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!
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- Bonnie Beezhold, Cynthia Radnitz, Amy Rinne, Julie DiMatteo | Vegans report less stress and anxiety than omnivores | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25415255/
- Bonnie L Beezhold, Carol S Johnston | Restriction of meat, fish, and poultry in omnivores improves mood: a pilot randomized controlled trial | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22333737/
- Ulka Agarwal, Suruchi Mishra, Jia Xu, Susan Levin, Joseph Gonzales, Neal D Barnard | A multicenter randomized controlled trial of a nutrition intervention program in a multiethnic adult population in the corporate setting reduces depression and anxiety and improves quality of life: the GEICO study | https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24524383/