Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena

Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2020 Apr 20;1-14. doi: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1741505. Online ahead of print.

Abstract

Objective: To examine the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health and well-being.Methods: A systematic search of online databases (PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL Plus, Medline, and Cochrane Library) was conducted for primary research examining psychological health in meat-consumers and meat-abstainers. Inclusion criteria were the provision of a clear distinction between meat-consumers and meat-abstainers, and data on factors related to psychological health. Studies examining meat consumption as a continuous or multi-level variable were excluded. Summary data were compiled, and qualitative analyses of methodologic rigor were conducted. The main outcome was the disparity in the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and related conditions in meat-consumers versus meat-abstainers. Secondary outcomes included mood and self-harm behaviors.Results: Eighteen studies met the inclusion/exclusion criteria; representing 160,257 participants (85,843 females and 73,232 males) with 149,559 meat-consumers and 8584 meat-abstainers (11 to 96 years) from multiple geographic regions. Analysis of methodologic rigor revealed that the studies ranged from low to severe risk of bias with high to very low confidence in results. Eleven of the 18 studies demonstrated that meat-abstention was associated with poorer psychological health, four studies were equivocal, and three showed that meat-abstainers had better outcomes. The most rigorous studies demonstrated that the prevalence or risk of depression and/or anxiety were significantly greater in participants who avoided meat consumption.Conclusion: Studies examining the relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and psychological health varied substantially in methodologic rigor, validity of interpretation, and confidence in results. The majority of studies, and especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and/or self-harm behaviors. There was mixed evidence for temporal relations, but study designs and a lack of rigor precluded inferences of causal relations. Our study does not support meat avoidance as a strategy to benefit psychological health.

Keywords: Anxiety; depression; meat; mental health; self-harm; vegan; vegetarianism.