Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The majority of studies, & especially the higher quality studies, showed that those who avoided meat consumption had significantly higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, or self-harm behaviors

Meat and mental health: a systematic review of meat abstention and depression, anxiety, and related phenomena. Urska Dobersek et al. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, Apr 20 2020. https://doi.org/10.1080/10408398.2020.1741505

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


Based on this systematic review comprising 160,257 participants from varied geographic regions, including Europe, Asia, North America, and Oceania, aged 11 to 96 years, there is clear evidence that meat-abstention is associated with higher rates or risk of depression, anxiety, and self-harm. The results with respect to mood states, affective well-being, stress perception and QoL are less clear and the majority of studies do not support unequivocal inferences.
Across all studies, there was no evidence to support a causal relation between the consumption or avoidance of meat and any psychological outcomes. However, three studies provided evidence suggesting (contradictory) temporal relations between meat-abstention and depression and anxiety. Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi (2012) demonstrated that the mean age at the adoption of meat-abstention (30.58 years) was substantially older than the mean age of the onset of metal disorder (24.69 years). These authors posited that mental disorders may lead to the adoption of a meat-less diet. The authors stated that individuals with mental disorders may “choose a vegetarian diet as a form of safety or self-protective behavior” (Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi 2012, 6) due to the perception that plant-based diets are more healthful or because individuals with mental disorders may be “more aware of suffering of animals” (Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi 2012, 2). Interestingly, these investigators also found that people with a lifetime diagnosis of psychological disorders consumed less fish and fast food. While these results conflict with previous research on fast food and mental health (Crawford et al. 2011), they support Matta et al.’s results and hypothesis that the exclusion of any food group, and especially meat and poultry, is associated with increased odds of having symptoms of psychological disorders (Matta et al. 2018).
Conversely, in their longitudinal analysis, Lavallee et al. (2019) found that meat-abstention was linked to “slight increases over time” (Lavallee et al. 2019, 153) in depression and anxiety in Chinese students. One important caveat when considering these disparate results on temporal relations may be differences in the factors that led to meat-abstention (e.g., religious practices, health and ethical considerations, or socio-economic status). For example, economically disadvantaged individuals who do not consume meat due to its relative cost may be at risk for ill-health for myriad reasons independent of their lack of meat consumption. Thus, future research examining temporal relations should establish clear distinctions between individuals and populations that abstain from meat consumption due to ethical, religious, and health-related perceptions, or those who do not consume meat for economic reasons.

Strengths, limitations, and flaws of the extant literature

Psychological outcomes

The most rigorous studies used objective and/or multiple assessments of psychological outcomes. For example, Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi (2012) were the first investigators to use standardized and comprehensive assessment of mental disorders based on DSM criteria (APA 2013). Similarly, Baines, Powers, and Brown (2007) provided multiple assessments of psychological outcomes that included reported physician-diagnosed conditions, and the use of prescription medication for depression and anxiety in concert with self-reported symptoms and behaviors (e.g., self-harm; Baines, Powers, and Brown 2007). Comparably, Hibbeln et al. (2018) included detailed participant histories, including childhood contact with psychiatric services and family history of depression. Methodologically weaker studies employed a single questionnaire and, in some cases, employed a single-item examining psychological symptoms over a limited timeframe (e.g., the previous week).


The most rigorous studies examined large, representative and/or matched samples (Baines, Powers, and Brown 2007; Matta et al. 2018; Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi 2012), whereas the least rigorous used biased recruitment strategies and biased convenience sampling. For example, Michalak, Zhang, and Jacobi (2012) employed both a large representative sample and a socio-demographically matched subsample for comparison. The strength of this approach cannot be understated. Similarly, Neumark-Sztainer et al. (1997) employed a matched sample drawn from a much larger study population. Conversely, a number of studies attempted to over-sample vegans and vegetarians by directly targeting these groups via internet sources such as “social websites geared to VG and VEG [vegan and vegetarians]”(Beezhold et al. 2015) and vegan chat-rooms and/or magazines and vegetarian “fairs” (Boldt et al. 2018; Wirnitzer et al. 2018). As discussed below, these sampling strategies in concert with self-reported data are a major design flaw.
Investigators who seek to over-sample groups that are highly invested (e.g., ethically, socially, intellectually or emotionally) in their “lifestyle” or dietary choices should acquaint themselves with the large body of research on cognitive dissonance (Festinger 1962), social-desirability (Fisher 1993), and observer-expectancy effects (e.g., reactivity). This body of work is especially relevant when applied to the errors and biases of self-reported dietary intake data; for details, please see (Archer, Hand, and Blair 2013; Archer, Lavie, and Hill 2018b; Archer, Marlow, and Lavie 2018c, 2018d; Archer, Pavela, and Lavie 2015; Hebert et al. 1995; Schoeller et al. 2013). This large and well-established body of research suggests that for individuals who maintain a strong group identity or affinity, meat consumption or avoidance may represent a significant ethical, intellectual, emotional, behavioral, social and/or spiritual investment that extends well-beyond a simple dietary choice. As such, many individuals (e.g., Paleo and “meat-only” dieters, vegans, vegetarians, Seventh Day Adventists) will be pre-disposed to report significantly higher levels of physical and psychological health to avoid cognitive dissonance and remain consistent with self- and/or group-appraisals.
These non-intentional biases in concert with the potential for a participant to intentionally misreport outcomes to support his or her ideological stances or religious beliefs may induce systematic and non-quantifiable errors when employing self-report protocols. As such, the oversampling of groups that are highly invested in their dietary regimes for health, religious, or ideologic concerns (e.g., animals rights) will lead to biased recruitment and extremely unreliable data. In fact, research on cognitive dissonance and social desirability suggests that the greater the motivation for adhering to one’s dietary or lifestyle pattern (or self-conception), the larger the potential error induced via the use of self-reports (Archer, Marlow, and Lavie 2018c; Festinger 1962). Future studies should employ objective data collection protocols when over-sampling groups that may be prone to intentional and/or non-intentional misreporting.

Assessment of dietary status (exposure)

One major limitation of all studies in this review was the use of self-reported dietary status. Currently, there is an escalating and contentious debate on the validity of self-reported dietary data and the use of food frequency questionnaires in nutrition (Archer and Lavie 2019b; Archer, Lavie, and Hill 2018b; Archer, Marlow, and Lavie 2018d; Archer, Pavela, and Lavie 2015; Ioannidis 2018; Martín-Calvo and Martínez-González 2018; Satija et al. 2015; Schoeller et al. 2013; Subar et al. 2015; Trepanowski and Ioannidis 2018). The debate revolves around two major criticisms. First, critics of self-reported data state that without objective corroboration of dietary self-reports, it is impossible to quantify measurement error due to intentional and nonintentional distorting factors, such as deliberate misreporting (i.e., deception/lying), social desirability, reactivity, misestimation, and false memories of dietary intake (Archer, Pavela, and Lavie 2015). Second, critics argue that pseudo-quantification (i.e., the transformation of reported foods and beverages into estimates of nutrient and caloric intake) created a fictional discourse on diet-disease relations (Archer, Hand, and Blair 2013; Archer, Lavie, and Hill 2018b). This latter argument is based on the fact that ∼65% of self-reported dietary data have been shown to be physiologically implausible [i.e., respondents cannot survive on the amount of foods and beverages reported (Archer, Hand, and Blair 2013; Archer, Pavela, and Lavie 2015; Ferrari et al. 2002; Goldberg et al. 1991)].
The first criticism is potentially applicable to our analyses. Nevertheless, the dichotomous nature of our classifications (i.e., meat-consumers versus meat-abstainers) reduces both its importance and impact. The second critique regarding pseudo-quantification is not relevant to our review, nor is it relevant to qualitative assessments of dietary intake.

Duration of dietary patterns

A number of studies failed to include information of the age at which meat-abstention began or the duration of non-consumption. If a relationship exists between the length of time an individual has abstained from meat consumption and physical or psychological health, these data are essential to future investigations. This is especially true since the nutritional deficiencies that are sometimes associated with veganism and vegetarianism may be more detrimental in children and adolescents (Cofnas 2019) and may take years to develop (Craig 2010; Dwyer 1991).

Other potential confounders

Clearly, diet is not the only determinant of psychological health (Archer 2018a2018b). Nevertheless, a number of the studies failed to include important potential confounders and effect modifiers. These include race, ethnic, or religious affiliation, social norms, as well as lifestyle behaviors that directly affect health (e.g., smoking, and alcohol use) and the physiologic determinants of dietary energy intake (e.g., physical activity, body cellularity; Archer 2018b; Archer, Lavie, and Hill 2018a; Archer et al. 2018e). Given that when compared to the general population, individuals who follow a vegetarian diet tend to be more health-conscious, more physically active, more highly educated, consume less alcohol, be nonsmokers and have higher socio-economic status (Appleby et al. 2016; Appleby and Key 2016; Chang-Claude et al. 2005), it is essential for future studies to include detailed information on participants’ health and behavioral histories and current characteristics.

Strengths and limitations of this review

This systematic review had several strengths, including our a priori decision to select only studies that provided a clear distinction between meat-consumers and meat-abstainers. This decision allowed for a clear and yet rigorous assessment. While myriad studies examined vegetarianism along a continuum, these were excluded simply because the lack of a clear distinction rendered inferences equivocal.
A second strength was our decision to limit our primary outcomes to well-defined mental disorders (i.e., depression, anxiety, and related symptoms) and a limited number of secondary outcomes (e.g., self-harm). This focus allowed for a concise yet rigorous review and ameliorated the effects of poorly operationalized psychological phenomena. For example, by excluding results on disordered eating, dietary restraint, orthorexia, and personality (e.g., neuroticism), we avoided the potential misclassification and concomitant pathologizing of those who simply wish to avoid specific foods or food groups (e.g., vegans).
Our study also had limitations. First, we excluded non-English language studies, that could potentially bias our results in favor of “Western” norms which include meat consumption. For example, our selection criteria excluded papers published in languages other than English. (e.g., Japanese, Hindi) and in non-English databases. Thus, our review may have omitted studies from geographic regions that follow predominantly vegetarian or plant-based dietary patterns. In these areas, the relation between meat-avoidance and psychological health may differ from “Western” nations. Nevertheless, our review included a large sample from China; so, this limitation may be trivial.
Second, while our search was clearly defined and comprehensive, our criteria excluded a large number of papers that provided data on this topic [e.g., see (Anderson et al. 2019; Barthels, Meyer, and Pietrowsky 2018; Burkert et al. 2014a; Cooper, Wise, and Mann 1985; Jacka et al. 2012; Larsson et al. 2002; Li et al. 2019; Northstone, Joinson, and Emmett 2018)]. Nevertheless, we think that a highly focused review has the potential to provide stronger evidence and, as such is more informative to the medical, research, and lay communities. Third, despite the high confidence we place in our finding that meat-abstention is linked to psychological disorders, study designs and lack of rigor precluded valid inferences of temporality and causality.
Fourth, meat consumption is often inconsistently classified in research and national surveillance settings (Gifford et al. 2017; O’Connor et al. 2020) as well as across languages. For example, in English, the broad category of “meat” subsumes both “red” and “white” meat (e.g., beef and poultry). However, in German, the term “meat” excludes poultry. As such, the results for the studies employing German samples were potentially more restrictive. Finally, inferences from our results are only as accurate as the data collected by the included studies. Given that all studies relied on self-reported dietary status, there is the possibility of misclassification because self-reported dietary consumption is not the equivalent of actual dietary consumption (Archer, Hand, and Blair 2013; Archer, Lavie, and Hill 2018b; Archer, Marlow, and Lavie 2018c, 2018d; Archer, Pavela, and Lavie 2015). In other words, there is an obvious and important distinction between merely reporting that one avoids meat and actual meat-abstention; and research supports the fact that self-defined vegetarians and meat-abstainers may consume meat (Haddad and Tanzman 2003).

Suggestions for future direction

Future investigators should avoid the most common flaws detailed herein (e.g., uncorroborated self-reported data, biased sampling, confounding, etc.). First, the limitations of self-reported dietary data may be partially overcome with point-of-purchase (barcode) data (Ng and Popkin 2012). Nevertheless, while purchase data may be more objective, it is not necessarily an accurate proxy for actual consumption. Second, investigators must acknowledge and address the effects of biased sampling with the use of self-reported data. Individuals highly invested in specific dietary patterns may be predisposed to intentional and non-intentional misreporting. Third, detailed behavioral and health-related histories and current lifestyles should be considered essential. The use of physician-diagnosed disorders based on criteria from the DSM-V (APA 2013) is preferable to self-reported symptoms and would assist in producing more definitive results.
Given the results of this review, an interesting future direction would be to examine if meat consumption per se has psychological benefits. For example, there is evidence that a significant number of vegans and vegetarians return to meat consumption over time and that former vegetarians and vegans in the U.S. outnumber current meat-abstainers (Faunalytics 2016). As such, one research question that can be answered empirically is whether it is the nutritional properties of meat (as measured via serum biochemical analyses), the reduced social burden or stigma associated with omnivory, or other physiologic or social factors that drive the transition from meat-abstainer back to meat-consumer.

Bilingualism Affords No General Cognitive Advantages: A Population Study of Executive Function in 11,000 People

Bilingualism Affords No General Cognitive Advantages: A Population Study of Executive Function in 11,000 People. Emily S. Nichols et al. Psychological Science, April 20, 2020. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797620903113

Abstract: Whether acquiring a second language affords any general advantages to executive function has been a matter of fierce scientific debate for decades. If being bilingual does have benefits over and above the broader social, employment, and lifestyle gains that are available to speakers of a second language, then it should manifest as a cognitive advantage in the general population of bilinguals. We assessed 11,041 participants on a broad battery of 12 executive tasks whose functional and neural properties have been well described. Bilinguals showed an advantage over monolinguals on only one test (whereas monolinguals performed better on four tests), and these effects all disappeared when the groups were matched to remove potentially confounding factors. In any case, the size of the positive bilingual effect in the unmatched groups was so small that it would likely have a negligible impact on the cognitive performance of any individual.

Keywords: bilingualism, executive function, cognition, aging, null-hypothesis testing