The Plant-Based Diet and Mental Health: An Overview

An examination of the interaction between a plant-based diet and mental health

By Jessica Romero

Plant-based diets are so much more than just a fad. People worldwide are seeking practical ways to counteract the devastating loss of biodiversity caused by the meat and dairy industries. While for many years veganism was seen as part of the hippie lifestyle, the 2010s saw a 600% increase in the diet’s popularity.

Why are so many people making such a drastic dietary change? Whether it’s a moral aversion to the consumption of animals or an awareness of our carbon footprint, going plant-based is sure to benefit your body and your mind.

While many are aware of the positive bodily effects of omitting animal products, more recent research has also shown that plant-based diets have a range of mental and emotional benefits. It’s here that we should note that a vegan diet is plant-based, but not all plant-based diets are vegan. This is because a plant-based diet is simply a commitment to eating a diet mainly composed of plant-based foods.

Let’s explore some of the benefits of a plant-based diet, as well as which fruit and veggies boost your brain function and emotional wellbeing.

The most important aspects of a plant-based diet is undoubtedly planning and research, and we’ll come back to this a lot.

Plant-based diet and mental health: A plate full of fresh fruit and vegetables
Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

3 Key Nutrients Relating to The Plant-Based Diet and Mental Health

Optimum brain function from a dietary perspective comes more from avoiding deficiencies than from any ‘superfoods’ claiming to double your mental capabilities. We’ll identify these nutrients, what they do for your brain, and where to find them.

  1. Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is the most often cited vitamin that aids in brain function.

It’s reported to aid in retaining memory as you age, preventing or delaying the onset of dementia. You might recall going to get a B12 injection at some point in your life if you’ve ever struggled with long-term fatigue or adult ADHD.

This makes sense, as B12 plays a role in forming memories and staying focused. Low B12 levels are also associated with depression.

B12 is commonly found in meat, and is one of the vitamins hardest to find outside of animal products. This is why it’s important for anyone following a plant-based diet to supplement with B12 wherever possible.

While some people may claim that a plant-based diet can meet all our needs, the availability of supplements is important, especially in the case of B12.

Abstaining from animal products may ease your anxieties, but a poorly planned vegan diet could leave you lethargic.

  1. Folate

Another member of the vitamin B family, folate is a naturally occurring, water-soluble form of B9. It plays a vital role in brain function as it promotes neural development. It’s also known to assist with depression and fatigue, and you don’t need to get an injection to see the benefits of B9.

Studies have shown that low levels of folate are linked to mental wellbeing. A large number of people struggling with psychological disorders seem to suffer from B9 deficiency.

Critics of veganism and other plant-based diets (such as this article by the BBC) often point to a lack of folate being an issue for vegans.

But this claim rings false.

In her article debunking the various claims made by the BBC, dietician Whitney English Tabaie presents a study that shows the opposite is true: vegans seemingly have higher folate levels than vegetarians or omnivores.

Luckily for plant-based foodies, folate is found in some of our favourite foods: Avocado, chickpeas and citrus fruits to name but a few.

  1. Iron

Iron: the nutrient that always comes up first in any debate with a devout carnivore.

The iron myth has been bust time and time again, but let’s recap.

Iron is an incredibly important nutrient in our diets. It’s also one that’s found in red meat in high concentrations. Iron deficiency can cause a range of issues, from fatigue to fainting and it’s also incredibly common. If you’ve ever donated blood, you’ll know that anaemia is a common barrier to entry. But Iron is also vital for the brain.

Low Iron levels link to reduced cognitive function, attention span and sensory perception functions.

However, iron is in an abundance of sources beyond meat. Legumes, nuts and left greens among others.

So, why are the meat eaters getting so hot and bothered?

Let’s discuss bioavailability. Bioavailability is how easily the body absorbs a compound or nutrient. Swiss chard is high in iron, but the body can’t absorb this iron as easily as it can from a steak. However, just as most omnivores wouldn’t consider a steak to be a nutritious standalone meal, vegetarians and vegans don’t just eat leaves. Other foods can aid our bodies in gleaning nutrients from different vegetables. This is once again why balance and preparation are so important. For example, vitamin C can increase the body’s ability to absorb plant-based nutrients by up to 6 times.

Whitney English Tabie says that if you like food, the chances are you do this naturally, such as pairing oats with strawberries or refried beans with red bell peppers. Making tasty meals means employing a variety of flavours and textures, and often this is also the foundation of a blanched diet.

Getting It Right: Key Takeaways on The Plant-Based Diet and Mental Health

There are some very important takeaways from all this information.

Firstly, false information is everywhere, and regrettably on both sides. While many publications have a lot to gain from denouncing whole food or plant-based diets, proponents of these lifestyles also benefit financially from false claims.

Secondly, planning and executing a balanced plant-based diet relies on a sound knowledge of what nutrients your body needs, and if you require any type of supplementation. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with giving your body a helping hand, whether you need extra vitamins and minerals, or supplements that aid your digestion and metabolism.

Lastly, reaching a place of optimal cognitive function is entirely possible through a plant-based diet, if you know your facts. A well-balanced, well-researched plant-based diet can do wonders for your brain power—and the planet.

Eating the right food and getting the right nutrition allows your body to perform at its optimum. This ensures you feel energetic, focused, and happy. All of which lead to increased productivity.