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Plant-Based Diet for Mental Health: Nourishing Your Body and Mind

Updated September 20, 2023

Hands wrapped around the soil of a growing tree to help promote diet and mental health.

Despite feeling good at the moment, reaching for that bacon burger while feeling sad isn’t going to make you feel better—at least in the long run. Soon after eating your favorite comfort meal, you might notice your satisfaction/happiness fade, leaving you feeling tired and worse than before. 


Junk food activates various negative processes in your body which makes you feel bad both physically and mentally. But, a nutritious diet has everything you need to feel better both physically and mentally.  


Many people are turning to a plant-based diet for their mental health. Let’s talk about why and how you can too.

What Is a Plant-Based Diet?

A plant-based diet is when the bulk of your nutrition consists of food from plants rather than animal-derived products like meat, milk, eggs, and honey.


The McDougall Program goes one step further and eliminates all animal foods and added oils. We recommend the majority of your meals be starch-based to include potatoes, rice, and/or legumes and then add in vegetables and fruits. 

The Science Behind Mental Health and Diet

So how exactly does your diet affect your mental health? 


The digestive system and the brain are tightly intertwined. Even more so, your digestive system creates 95% of your body’s serotonin, the happiness hormone. It’s called “The Gut-Brain Connection”


The processes that create serotonin are influenced by good bacteria in your digestive system. Eating a nutritional diet can promote the growth of good bacteria and make it easier for your body to make serotonin.  

How a Plant-Based Diet Can Improve Your Mental Health

So we’ve talked a bit about how diet can affect your mental health, but you’re probably wondering why a plant-based diet is good for your mental health specifically. 

Plant-Based Diet in Action

There’s a study that had 60 vegetarians and 78 non-vegetarians fill out two psychometric tests: The Depression Anxiety Stress Scale (DASS) and the Profile of Mood States (POMS).


The study showed that vegetarians had lower DASS scores compared to non-vegetarians. The same happened with POMS scores, showing that the vegetarians had a better mood overall. Essentially, the vegetarian participants of the study had fewer negative emotions and more positive feelings compared to the non-vegetarian group. 


Another study focused on the relationship between depression/anxiety and nutrition. The researchers looked through several different mental health and nutrition studies and found that healthy eating could prevent and treat the two conditions. They found specific nutrients like vitamin B6, vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc, and omega-3 acids all helped regulate or decrease the chance of depression and anxiety. 


Here are two other studies that proved diets based heavily on fruits, vegetables, and nuts (rather than red meat) are better for mental health:


Key Essentials of a Plant-Based Diet

What foods are part of a plant-based diet? Check out the list below:


  • Fruits: Berries, pears, citrus fruits, bananas, etc.
  • Vegetables: Kale, butternut squash, broccoli, carrots, potatoes, etc. 
  • Whole grains: Rolled oats, quinoa, brown rice, barley
  • Good fats: Avocados, seeds, nuts 
  • Plant protein: Tofu, tempeh, kidney beans, pinto beans
  • Seeds and nuts: Almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, all-natural peanut butter
  • Legumes: Chickpeas, lentils, black beans, peas

Balanced Meal Planning to Avoid Potential Nutrient Deficiencies

This isn’t just a diet change, it’s an entire lifestyle change! Which, on your own, can be incredibly difficult. That’s why Dr. McDougall has created a variety of recipes to help you start (and we’ll support you along the way!). 


Be sure to see the entire catalog of recipes

Make the Change to a Plant-Based Diet Today!

Despite how overwhelming it may seem at first, switching to a plant-based diet is achievable and will provide physical and mental benefits in the long run. If you aren’t sure it’s for you, read how much better some Star McDougallers feel after a diet change

If you’d like a little more guidance beyond recipes, Dr. McDougall offers a variety of programs along with educational articles and blog posts.