Healthy vegan diet & lower depression risk

Updated 25 May 2020

A vegan diet on its own is unlikely to cure depression. But a healthy diet – and this can very well be a healthy vegan diet – can contribute to curing, or improving, or reducing the risk of depression.
Here are some food group based recommendations from a meta-analysis from 2017. Enjoy.

Associated with a decreased risk of depression
Vegan alternative
fruit


vegetables


whole grains


fish
plant sources of ALA (foods) or vegan sources of DHA (oils/supplements)
+ a good source of vitamin B12
olive oil


low-fat dairy products
calcium rich plant foods, calcium rich water, or calcium fortified foods
+ a good source of vitamin B12
antioxidants [like beta-carotene, vitamin C and vitamin E]


low intakes of animal foods


Associated with an increased risk of depression
Healthy vegan replacement options that might help decrease depression risk
red and/or processed meat
tofu, tempeh, natto, some seitan, some vegan veggie meats (burgers, sausages, deli slices), falafel, homemade seitan sausage, homemade tempeh chorizo, green jackfruit burgers, mushroom burgers
+ a good source of vitamin B12
refined grains
whole grains, whole grain bread, rolled oats, quinoa, amaranth, popcorn, puffed whole grains, whole grain flour with some soya flour for baking
sweets
fruit, dried fruit such as dates, figs, apricots, bananas, sweets made with dried fruit
high-fat dairy products
soya milk (avoid soya milk with a lot of added sugar), soya yoghurt, nut butters, tahini
butter
rapeseed (canola) oil/olive oil/flax seed oil based margarines, healthy oils
potatoes

sweet potatoes, a mix of root vegetables
high-fat gravy
vegan moderate fat gravy (Google or invent a recipe)
low intakes of fruits and vegetables
Try a breakfast with five pieces of fruit. Eat vegetables with lunch and dinner.
Reference for the info in the table above:
Li Y, Lv MR, Wie YJ, Sun L, Zhang JX, Zhang HG, Li B: Dietary patterns and depression risk: A meta-analysis. Psychiatry Res. 2017 Jul;253:373-382. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2017.04.020 . Epub 2017 Apr 11.



A cross-sectional study with 435 women in Iran confirmed that eating more healthy plant foods is associated with a lower risk of depression (see here). 
Healthy plant-based diets can also reduce depression and improve quality of life in people with type 2 diabetes (see here).


More food and nutrient suggestions: 

Eating enough ALA-rich foods (alpha-linolenic acid) will likely result in higher concentrations of EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) in your body and this - or consuming EPA directly from EPA-rich algae oil - might help you getting rid of depression. (See my recommendations under point 5) (See here, and here, and here, here, and here for references.)
A DHA supplement (~ 300 mg/day) might improve depression, but this is not sure at all (also see here) and might be due to DHA being converted back to EPA in your body.

Eating nuts can probably also contribute to lowering the risk for depression. (See here, here, herehere, and here.) 

Consuming enough zinc is important for everyone (and easy to do), and it's possible that getting enough zinc is especially important for people with depression, possibly especially women (See here). 

Avoiding vitamin D deficiency could be important for avoiding depression (see here, here, herehere, herehereherehere, herehereherehere, here, and here (meta-analysis)). But it is not sure if vitamin D supplements can improve depression symptoms, see here and here. It is not sure of vitamin D really has a causal role in depression, see herehereherehere, and here).

Consuming enough calcium might also be important for preventing depression (see here).

Eat legumes (in some form or other) every day. They are a great source of protein, iron, zinc and phytonutrients, and they can possibly lower your risk for depression (see here).

It's possible that consuming green tea, coffee, or even caffeine in general, can lower your risk of depression (See here, here, here, and here). About 400 ml of coffee per day might be a good idea, while drinking more than that might be good or bad: More than 400 ml of coffee per day might raise the risk of depression again (see here) or (!) it might lower the risk even further (see here and here). 

As mentioned above if you follow a vegan or plant-based diet do not forget to consume a reliable source of vitamin B12. Vitamin B12 deficiency can increase the risk for depression (see here, herehere, here).

A high intake of folate (folic acid) - which vegans and other plant-based eaters usually have because legumes and vegetables are a great source of folate - might also be important for avoiding depression (see here).

It also seems that avoiding deficiencies in vitamins and minerals in general might also lower the risk of depression (see here and here).

A review from 2020 states: "Current evidence suggests that healthy eating patterns that meet food-based dietary recommendations and nutrient requirements may assist in the prevention and treatment of depression and anxiety.
[...]
The 3 foodbased Healthy Eating Patterns that are recommended in the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (Healthy US Style Eating Pattern, Healthy Mediterranean-Style Eating Pattern, Health Vegetarian/ Vegan Eating Pattern) are examples of healthy dietary patterns that could be implemented to improve behavioral health. Vegetarian and vegan diets should ensure nutrient adequacy, especially sufficient intakes of n-3 fatty acids (eg, algae, walnuts, flax), iron (eg, legumes, green leafy vegetables), and vitamin B12 (via fortified foods or supplements)."

Food allergies could also play a causal role in depression in some people, and avoiding the respective foods can lead to improvements in mood (see here).



For more specific sources of vegan-relevant nutrients, see my recommendations here.





Also see Virginia Messina's depression and vegan diet-related post here.


Note that diet is not everything. Physical activity is important, not just for general health but also for protecting yourself from depression (see here).