Is there a beneficial link between a plant-based diet and mental health?
Plant-based diets are gaining popularity. There are many benefits of eating a diet full of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes while decreasing animal products and refined carbohydrates and sugars. The health benefits are seen in both physical health and the decreased risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables while following a plant-based diet means consuming a lot of antioxidants. Antioxidants work in the body to prevent damage to healthy cells to promote health and not disease.
Plant-based diets also show promise in regards to improving mental health and emotional well-being by controlling inflammation in the body.
What is a plant-based diet?
A plant-based diet limits or avoids animal products like meat and dairy, and includes a variety of:
- Fruit and vegetables,
- Whole grains such as brown rice, barley, oats, millet, whole wheat pasta and bread
- Legumes such as kidney beans, chickpeas, black beans, peas and lentils
- Nuts and seeds such as almonds, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, cashews
Diet and Mental Health: What does the research say?
Include More Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Plant-based diets may improve not only physical health and well-being but also mental health. Plant-based diets lead to a reduction of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is measured using a blood test looking for levels of inflammatory markers in the body that can contribute to depression, among other things.
A 2015 study compared two groups of people: one group continued their regular diet, the other group began eating a plant-based diet. The plant-based group reported higher levels of physical and mental wellbeing including less depression, anxiety, fatigue, and better emotional health and work productivity.
Unfortunately the study didn’t compare what happened when people switched to a healthier diet that wasn’t plant-based. This would have shown if switching to a healthier diet (whether plant-based or not) can improve mental health, or if it was only the plant-based diet that improved mental health.
Antioxidants consumed on a plant-based diet can positively impact inflammatory markers leading to improved mental and emotional health. We know eating foods with antioxidants is good for health, but these foods are not exclusive to a plant-based diet.
Antioxidants such as carotenoids and flavonoids can be found in the following foods:
Green leafy vegetables such a kale and collard greens
Legumes such as beans and lentils
Support a Healthy Gut Microbiome
Improvements in mental health associated with following a plant-based diet may also be connected to the gut microbiome and its link to the brain. The gut microbiome is referring to healthy bacteria in the intestine that can have a number of positive impacts on health. A diet high in fibre and antioxidants, such as a plant-based diet, helps to develop and maintain a healthy microbiome.
The gut microbiome is known to influence the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter which regulates mood, appetite, sleep and pain. When the gut microbiome is disrupted by poor diet quality it negatively impacts serotonin production and impacts mental health.
The research shows that a plant-based diet, among other healthy eating patterns, may be very promising when it comes to improving both physical and mental health. Enjoying a nourishing diet, such as a plant-based diet, high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and legumes has many benefits that can help you optimize your overall health and quality of life.
A healthy diet is an important piece of mental health care, but it is only a piece. If you’re struggling with your own mental health, please seek help from your doctor and a mental health professional.
In the United States, you can find mental health help here.
In Canada, you can find mental health help here.
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