I am what Sandor Katz in Wild Fermentation calls a post-vegetarian. I was a vegetarian or near vegetarian for many years primarily for health reasons. I am an omnivore now for the same reasons. Apparently, my favorite vegetarian chef, Mollie Katzen, eats meat on occasion.
I eat meat now for the nutrient content, not just because it is an easy meal or because I cannot pass up a hamburger (though I do find it hard to pass up a hamburger). My depression was aggravated by nutrients that were lean in those old vegetarian days – vitamin B-12, vitamin B-6, zinc, and Omega-3 fatty acids. Iron is another deficiency that can plague anyone, but one which vegetarians are more likely to struggle.
But with a focus on meat nutrients it is easy to forget the benefits of the plant world.
In fighting depression, B vitamins and Omega 3 fatty acids are critical and meat is your best source. But that meat will not provide you with adequate magnesium and a magnesium deficiency alone could be a primary cause of depression. Magnesium is that important.
In the 2001-02 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, the average respondent consumed only about two-thirds of the dietary reference intake of magnesium. A big part of the reason for this gap is the foods we tend to choose now in the 21st Century. We tend to eat foods that have been stripped of their magnesium content. In a 1986 article in the journal Magnesium, J Marier presents data on magnesium in the food supply and argues that food processing has stripped many foods of its native magnesium. White flour products are a shining example: wheat loses about 85% of its magnesium when it is refined. Sugar loses 99% of its magnesium when it is transformed from molasses into white table sugar.
Furthermore, our produce contains less magnesium than it did about fifty years ago. The spinach you might eat today contains less magnesium than it probably would have contained fifty years ago. (see Nutrient Loss In The Food Supply)
Generally speaking, the best source is whole grains and vegetables. Vegetarians are more likely to get both of those food items. Meat eaters are likely to displace some vegetables and whole grains with meat.
What we really should be doing is eating enough meat to meet our dietary needs (which may be greater if you are correcting a deficiency) and fill in the rest of the diet with vegetables and some fruit. Whole grains are a good bet too for magnesium. There are some “seed grain” products like quinoa and amaranth that may be the best bet yet because of their particularly high nutrient content.
Eat a whole lot of plants to get magnesium and the many other nutrients plants can offer.
With a focus on B vitamins and Omega 3 fatty acids in depression, it could be easy to forget a key reason to eat fruits and vegetables is to add natural sources of antioxidants to our diets. There is no research to speak of on an antioxidant-depression link but our bodies face stress all of the time that requires antioxidants to keep us in good health.
Every day researchers find new antioxidants in the most unusual places. Coffee, tea, and wine are my favorite love-to-hate antioxidants because, really, do I need more coffee? From the size of the line outside the door at Starbucks the other day, I highly doubt we have reached a coffee deficiency state in this country.
Focus on getting your antioxidants from fresh fruits and vegetables. Those come not only with the antioxidants; they come with nutrients and enzymes to help rebuild your body.
In my own diet, I focus on low-glycemic fruit such as berries. When I have an abundance of fruit in season, I freeze it for future drinks or desserts or I juice it and turn it into a kefir drink. The kefir approach is a really good one for people trying to reduce their sugar intake but still wanting the benefits of fruit.
In the spirit of taking the best from the vegetable world, I have been experimenting with one of the plant-based gold standards, a vegetable juice concoction. A mix of carrot, beet, and dark leafy greens can produce a drink loaded with nutrients, but also high in oxalic acids (which inhibits mineral absorption) and high in sugar. I have been fermenting the juice with my water kefir process to reduce both the oxalates and sugar and have to say it’s a pretty incredible power drink. It has beneficial bacteria to boot. I have taken the same sort of approach with nettle tea with great effects.
Eat plants early and often. It is unlikely that you will ever eat too much.