Meat Avoidance And Poor Mental Health
Over the last few years, a range of studies have been conducted to examine the role meat consumption plays in supporting mental well-being. Both sides, for and against meat consumption, cite their own positive or negative correlations. Looking back a century ago, when nutrition science was barely in its infancy, the early arguments for the nutritional superiority of “meat-free” diets were mere conjecture, shaped by religious and moral sentiments. More recently, though, while some studies suggest a reduction in mortality associated with vegetarianism, the larger body of evidence indicates that such health benefits may not be specifically due to the avoidance of meat, but other factors such higher physical activity, lower alcohol and drug consumption, or the avoidance of tobacco products.
When it comes to mental health, the consensus seems to be that vegetarians are more likely to be diagnosed with major depression and are more likely to attempt self-harm. However, the evidence is not unequivocal, with 2010 and 2015 studies suggesting that with respect to some facets of mental health, vegetarians were healthier than meat-consumers. Such inconsistent findings are often blamed on the use of self-reported dietary history, among other methodological flaws. In this study, a group of U.S. researchers carried out a review of the existing literature, including the studies mentioned above, to systematically examine the relationship between the consumption or avoidance of meat, and psychological health and well-being.
The researchers highlight that current global estimates reflect a general substantial increase in the number of people living with mental disorders and illnesses over the past two decades. Since the issue is more pressing than ever, they note, it is vital to use stringent criteria for determining and identifying mental illness in the first place. While some investigators examining diet-disease relations only include physician-diagnosed disorders, others rely exclusively on self-reported mental health or subjective scales with untested validity, leading to unavoidable classification errors and ambiguous findings. For example, the researchers note that some individuals use vegetarianism as a strategy to mask disordered eating, and that the endorsement of vegetarianism is highest in women with severe eating pathologies. Some researchers are known to even treat self-reported vegetarianism as a proxy for mental illness.
The researchers screened 6,840 papers for inclusion/exclusion criteria, which resulted in 100 full-text articles that were read fully and assessed critically. 18 papers met the criteria and were included in the final analysis, representing 160,257 participants from several geographic regions. The results were clear and worrying: the highest quality evidence (i.e. low risk for bias and high result confidence) supports that meat-abstention is associated with higher rates or risks of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. Although the authors place very high confidence in their findings, the study could not determine any causal or temporal relationships between meat consumption/avoidance and psychological outcomes. Instead, the researchers claim that the avoidance of meat could potentially be used as a behavioral marker associated with poorer mental health.
The researchers suggest that through rigorous experimental planning, it should be possible to answer the question of whether it is the nutritional properties of meat, the reduced social burden or stigma, or other factors that drive so many meat-abstainers back to consuming meat. The fact that most high-quality results reveal negative mental well-being and meat abstinence associations, in contrast to most low-quality results indicating an opposite correlation, gives warning to all animal advocates. We should strive to pay close attention to such findings and take care of our well-being both personally and socially, for the movement to remain strong and sustainable. Only through mutual support can we hope to remain healthy and resilient in our plight against all animal suffering.