The Heartbreak of Vegetarianism

College can be a source of fear, loathing and depression — especially for vegetarian students, says columnist Dan Murphy. ( freeimages.com )

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

Although it paints something of a grim picture of the vegetarian community, a new study on the psychological impact of giving up animal foods isn’t anything to celebrate.

However, the study — though conducted on a small sample of students — did demonstrate that giving up meat-eating tends to be associated with a bleaker, less upbeat perspective on life, and if nothing else, it’s a sobering counterpoint to the pervasive mantra that going vegan is wholly redemptive for both people and the planet.

Turns out, choosing to go vegetarian may end up driving participants to internalize an outlook on life that’s even more depressing than it might otherwise be.

Titled, “Relationships between vegetarian dietary habits and daily well-being,” the study’s authors, who are research psychologists at UCLA and the College of William and Mary, found that vegetarians are generally “more miserable than meat-eaters, have lower self-esteem and may be less psychologically well-adjusted.”

Researchers asked 400 college students, a mix of vegetarians, meat-eaters and what they called “semi-vegetarians” to record their feelings over the course of two weeks. The goal was to examine differences in the daily experiences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.

Here’s how the authors of the study, which was which published in the current edition of the journal Ecology of Food and Nutrition, collected their data:

Depressed and disillusioned

At the end of each day, students “described how they felt and how they thought about themselves that day.” They then detailed the various events that happened to them that day.

The researchers found that people who avoided eating any meat or fish reported lower self-esteem, lower psychological adjustment, less “meaning” in life and experienced more negative moods than those students in the study who ate meat or fish.

“Vegetarians also reported more negative social experiences than omnivores and semi-vegetarians,” they noted. “Although women were more likely than men to identify as vegetarians and semi-vegetarians, controlling for participant gender did not change the results of the analyses.”

The authors concluded that, “The differences we found are consistent with other research that suggests that vegetarians are less psychologically well-adjusted than non-vegetarians.”

As someone who’s debated dozens of diehard vegetarians over the years, I’m tempted to agree that veggies are just messed-up people. But that wouldn’t be fair.

Many vegans and vegetarians — probably most of them — choose such a restrictive diet because of concerns, however misplaced, about the well-being of animals, and more recently because they believe that raising livestock is damaging the environment. Being worried about the fate of animals and/or the health of the planet can certainly trigger anger, anxiety and deep angst about the future.

Not only that, but college itself can be a source of fear, loathing and depression — especially for vegetarian students, who are a less likely to be pledging a frat or partying down in the dorms as they pursue those expensive diplomas.

That said, this study reveals something else about vegetarians, an insight separate from the psychological impact of the social and economic problems a campus environment tends to exacerbate, and that is this: People don’t adopt a vegetarian diet and then find religion as a result; rather, they’re people who have been searching for a “cause” to believe in, something they want to be convinced will make a difference in this world, and vegetarianism happens to be where they land.

In other words, the negative moods, the lower self-esteem and the lack of meaning in life leads people to embrace vegetarianism as a cure for what ails them — not, as the study’s authors implied, because going veggie itself causes people to become depressed.

Although living on salad and soybeans for the rest of one’s life isn’t exactly the most upbeat prospect one could imagine.

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