Everyone Seems to Think Vegetarianism Causes Depression. They’re Wrong.

Little girl, cries and runs away from a vegetable monster

Women’s Health Magazine recently published an article with the sensational headline: “The Scary Mental Health Risks of Going Meatless”. In it, they interviewed several psychologists who cited a lack of meat as the reasons that some of their vegetarian patients experienced mental health issues. To “fix” them, all these sad meatless schlubs had to do was eat a steak.

These anecdotes are the lead-in to the real “bread and butterolive oil” of the article: two studies that found a connection between worse mental health and a vegetarian diet. It’s an alarming read that makes non-vegetarians thankful they eat meat. And vegetarians quick to immediately disregard the whole article as flawed or biased or… whatever. 

The thing is, the vegetarians are right in this case. The whole thing is flawed. It seems that journalists aren’t very good at interpreting scientific research. Or maybe they’re just lazy. Here’s the abstract from one of the studies they cite:

In Western cultures vegetarian diet is associated with an elevated risk of mental disorders. However, there was no evidence for a causal role of vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders.

Did you see that last part? (If you didn’t maybe you, too, should be a journalist.) Look at it again:

However, there was no evidence for a causal role of vegetarian diet in the etiology of mental disorders.

In other words, according to the very study they cite, no one could figure out whether vegetarianism causes mental disorders in the first place. Sure, there may be some kind of connection there, but whether to draw an arrow from vegetarianism to mental illness or just draw a big circle around the whole thing to indicate they’re connected is unclear.

Causation—or figuring out if something causes something else—is a hard thing to pin down. Science often discovers patterns in the data, but that doesn’t always mean one follows the other. For example, statistically speaking, we know that vegetarians tend to be more female and make more money than the rest of the population, but that doesn’t necessarily mean dropping meat from your diet is going to turn you into a man or lower your income.

It’s the same for mental health.

The premise of the article is that by eating a vegetarian diet, we are missing some depression-protecting thing that’s only found in meat. And while there is an increasing body of research to indicate that, yes, meat does afford the brain some benefit, vegetarianism isn’t the end all, be all of your mental health issues. That being said, if you are a vegetarian, suffering from a mental health issue, take a look at this article about what to do about it.