German Vegetarians and Mental Disorders

In June 2010 I blogged about a study showing that Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) vegetarians had “less negative emotions” than SDA non-vegetarians (link).

Earlier this month, a cross-sectional study from Germany was released showing that vegetarians were more likely to have had mild mental disorders. The purpose of the study had been to see if vegetarians who eat less fish (for DHA) and get less vitamin B12 were more likely than non-vegetarians to develop mental disorders. It turned out that while the vegetarians did have higher rates of mental disorders, they had, on average, developed them before becoming vegetarian.

Many of the vegetarians did eat fish, but excluding them did not change the results. It is not clear how many, if any, of the vegetarians were vegan, but definitely not more than half (the percentage who never ate fish).

The data was taken from the German National Health Interview and Examination Survey (GHS) conducted in 1998/1999, making me feel less bad that it took me two weeks to get around to writing a post about it.

They did find that the vegetarians were more likely to develop an eating disorder after they became vegetarian, whereas the rest of the disorders (depression, anxiety, somatoform (hypochondria and pain)) tended to occur before becoming vegetarian.

I originally read this study for the B12 and DHA angle. As I read it and found out that more than half of the “vegetarians” were actually semi-vegetarians, I became less enthused about reporting on it, but in the end decided I should in case it was mentioned elsewhere on the Internet.

Hopefully, things have improved for German vegetarians in the last 10 years.


Michalak J, Zhang XC, Jacobi F. Vegetarian diet and mental disorders: results from a representative community survey. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2012 Jun 7;9(1):67. (link)

6 Responses to “German Vegetarians and Mental Disorders”

  1. headshrinker Says:

    As a psychologist who has treated anorexia, I can add that it was not uncommon for patients to identify themselves as vegetarian.
    After doing a careful patient history, however, it would often become clear that becoming vegetarian was a prodromal symptom- the very early beginnings of an eating disorder developing. The vegetarianism then progressed to greater and greater restrictions and rules re: food, until, over time, the individual ultimately met diagnostic criteria for an ED.

  2. Dave Rolsky Says:

    It’s hard to take much away from this. Maybe following a veg diet increased one’s chances of a mental disorder. Maybe people who are prone to mental disorders are also more likely to go veg. Maybe mental disorders and going veg share some other common factor that the study doesn’t reveal.

  3. Debrah Says:

    As a vegan who has dealt with what I call low level chronic depression and anxiety since childhood, my take on this is ‘from the inside, looking out’. People who are depressed are often people who simply can’t help themselves and think toooo much. We dwell on the issues that create suffering in the world around us (perhaps because we ‘suffer’ and so empathise deeply) and at some level agonize because we can’t fix any of it. We feel it like a weight on our souls and it presses down on us pretty much continually. I think most of us can see that we are depressed, we recognize that it is pointless to feel so bad and often our lives are great in and of themselves, but we are helpless to ‘snap out of it’ and we feel frozen in that place of sorrow. Perhaps in many of those cases, the move to vegetarianism is seen as one way that we can improve something in the world or at least not contribute to what we see as an unending river of violence and abuse. At least we’ve dragged our boat up on the shore and are no longer in it.

    I listened to a list of symptoms for eating disorders the other day on the Doctors program, and I was amazed at how many of them, taken at face value would apply to me and my vegan daughter, and yet neither of us have eating disorders. Things like focusing constantly on what we will eat through the day, avoiding outings that revolve around food (going out to restaurants), avoiding social settings that revolve around food, perfectionist personalities, etc. I should point out that my other daughter is not vegan, but she also is concerned about the food that she feeds her young family just as I and my vegan daughter do. So I think that there are cross-over symptoms between eating disorders and being vegans, but I think it’s important to realize that just because you are a vegan/vegetarian doesn’t mean you have an eating disorder or that you will develop one.

    It can also mean that you are concerned about the violence of a meat eating lifestyle, you are focused on being the healthiest veg. you can be for the sake of your own health and the reputation of that particular lifestyle choice and let’s face it, being a vegan means perusing every menu to find the single choice that you feel is passably appropriate for you to eat. And that get’s tiresome and frustrating and it isn’t long before the whole restaurant thing becomes an irritation that we tend to avoid or at least take little pleasure in.

    So that’s my take on the attempt to connect mental illness with the decision to go vegetarian.

  4. Arcadio Says:

    “Hopefully, things have improved for German vegetarians in the last 10 years.”

    I’m German, and it seems the number of vegetarians/vegans, the acceptance of vegetarianism/veganism and the range of vegan convenience foods has drastically gone up since 1999.

  5. Jack Norris RD Says:

    Good news, Arcadio! And thanks for all the work you’ve done to help make that happen.

  6. caela Says:

    Manic Depression runs in my family. My father, my brothers, and myself have all been diagnosed with it. Long before I went vegan, I would go on ‘Veggie Binges’ to even out my moods. Now that I’m vegan, my swings are much much much less often and I recover my ‘happy medium’ much faster. Perhaps folks who have mental disorders naturally gravitate towards a vegen diet as an uncious way of self-treatment?

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