A recent post on Instagram refers to a ‘new’ study on red meat reducing the risk of depression. Responding to a comment requesting the source, the author of the Instagram account posted a link to an article published in The Telegraph (a British broadsheet) on 21 March 2012, almost 11 years ago. Relatedly, the Instagram account also appears to advocate for a carnivore diet, where one essentially only consumes meat and animal products.
The study referred to was conducted by Deakin University in Australia. Based on a review of data collected from 1000 Australian women, the research found that women who consumed below the recommended amount of red meat were twice as likely to have a diagnosed depressive or anxiety disorder compared to those who consumed the recommended amount. According to the study, the recommended amount of red meat, as per Australian dietary guidelines at that time, is 3-4 servings of red meat per week with each serving being 65g-100g.
The study claims that the correlation between red meat consumption and mental health was independent of other factors, including the participants’ overall diets, physical activity, and alcohol consumption. In addition, the mental health benefits did not apply to other forms of proteins such as chicken or plant-based protein.
While the health researchers did not recommend consuming red meat in excess of the guideline amounts, they suggested consuming grass-fed meats which are generally more nutritious and contain Omega-3 fatty acids that are important to mental and physical health. Omega-3 fatty acids have been associated with alleviating or preventing mood disorders.
Is red meat necessary for good mood?
There have been other studies that have associated meatless diets with an increased risk of depression. One plausible explanation could be the possible nutrient deficiencies in a meatless diet. For example, a lack of vitamin B12, which is primarily obtained from meat sources, could affect one’s mood and anxiety levels.
Another probable reason is that people with depression or mental health issues might reduce or stop their meat intake as part of their efforts to make better dietary choices. Hence, controlled experiments might be necessary to establish any causal links between diets and depression, rather than just a review of available data.
On the other hand, a 2020 review of various research on the effects of red meat and processed meat consumption on depression found that overall, a high intake of red meat and processed meat was linked to depression. Red meat and processed meats tend to be higher in saturated fats which correlate to higher inflammation and are associated with a higher risk of depression.
Ethical dilemma of eating meat
There are various reasons why one might avoid meat, such as religious beliefs or ethical reasons, like animal rights.
A separate study by the University of Zurich compared depression levels among three main groups; those who consume meat, vegans, and those who are trying to reduce their meat intake. The study found that the last group was more depressed in comparison to the rest, attributed to the “stress involved in being aware of the problems with eating animals, while at the same time engaging in the behavior”.
However, as with most studies on this topic, it cannot be said with certainty that one’s diet is the cause of one’s depression. The study by the University of Zurich recognised that there could be a variety of factors affecting one’s mental health, and it may not be as simple as one aspect of diet leading to depression.
Therefore, with conflicting results from various studies, it is inconclusive if red meat reduces the risk of depression, and more thorough research is necessary.