Written by Caitlyn P
Before I became a vegetarian, I didn’t pay any attention to my nutritional intake. Mostly because I didn’t have to. I was a sophomore in high school. I had a bagel for breakfast while I was running out the door to catch my ride, I’d buy my lunch, and I was fed whatever everyone else was fed for dinner.
Vegetarianism wasn’t as big a change as my family always thought it was (“But what do you eat?”). I still ate cheese, and I wasn’t willing to substitute anything for the eggs in my mom’s best brownie, cookie, and nutroll recipes. But I quickly became aware, among holiday interviews from family members who were concerned I wouldn’t get enough protein or iron or fiber, that paying attention to what I eat was going to need to become a priority.
I do it without thinking now, but starting off I was always checking packages for protein content, making sure I had some broccoli (my favorite green vegetable) every day, adding a variety of beans to whatever I cooked because I’d heard somewhere that beans have good things for vegetarians. It was never a problem—I saw it as fun, something new, a way to add things to my diet that I’d never tried before. I finally discovered what tofu was. I learned how to make weird combinations of foods taste good.
In all the first four years of vegetarianism, though, I never thought about why my family was—and still is—so worried about what nutrients I take in or miss. I didn’t think to wonder what happens to the body when it’s deficient of any of its regular nutrients.
The thing is, our diet has as much impact on our mental health as it does on our physical health. An article published by Greatist.com outlines the vitamins and nutrients our body needs on a daily basis in order to stay mentally fit. Among other things, it suggests a link between depression and deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as calcium, omega-3s, vitamin D, and zinc.
The Indian Journal of Psychiatry points to evidence that a theme underscoring many vitamin deficiencies is a deficiency of the chemicals serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters that are responsible for controlling our behavior. A study found that deficiency in these nutrients was common among patients suffering from mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
That said, eating a balanced diet may improve our mental health, but it isn’t the cure-all to mental illnesses. Even those who focus on eating well-balanced meals may suffer from stress, and stress eats away at our body’s necessary nutrients.
Eating well, though, is something we can all benefit from. At least making a small effort to keep ourselves healthy goes a long way on the road to being healthy, mentally, emotionally, and physically. It doesn’t require a revolution of thought or a transition from carnivorism to veganism. You don’t have to cut out everything that tastes good. In my experience, eating healthy has only involved trying new things, making them work with my diet and my lifestyle, and trying to be the best of myself.