Is vegetarianism healthier? A meaningless question. Healthier than what? A junk food diet? Yes, but any sensible diet is healthier than a diet of ultra-processed junk food. Healthier than a sensible mixed diet? It is at this point that the crystal ball clouds over …
A recent cross-sectional study (derived from the Austrian Health Interview Survey AT-HIS 2006/07) found that while a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption, it is also associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life (1).
As an obligate omnivore who in the course of his international work has eaten dog, cat, beaver, horse, whale, snake, water-rat, kudu, squirrel, black bear, jellyfish and alligator served with fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, legumes, algae and roots, not to mention seeds and stems, although not all on the same plate, I am only slightly surprised. But somewhat relieved, also, because I would hate to give up the UK’s finest contribution to world cuisine, namely the Full English. (For those interested in such things the Full English was originally designed as an attempt to impress, combining as it does ingredients derived from every animal in the farmyard and therefore representing conspicuous, or as we know it today, luxus consumption).
My confidence in luxuriously consuming all the farmyard animals is bolstered by many other data sets. One such is another and very large Australian study (the Ozzies are heavy meat eaters, in every sense of the phrase), involving nearly 300,000 subjects, which found no significant difference in mortality risk between vegetarians vs non-vegetarians, or between pesco-vegetarians, semi-vegetarians and meat eaters (2). The authors of this study stated that there was ‘no evidence that following a vegetarian diet, semi-vegetarian diet or a pesco-vegetarian diet has an independent protective effect on all-cause mortality.’
But even if vegetarians are dying at the same rate, are they dying in different, and perhaps more virtuous ways? I have no moral authority whatsoever and so will refrain from discussing such social constructs as virtue, but when you look more closely at the figures, it does seem that vegetarian death is slightly different.
In a large meta-analysis comparing vegetarians and vegans to omnivores, the vegetarians had significantly reduced body mass index, total cholesterol, LDL-cholesterol, and glucose levels (3). They also have slightly less mortality from ischaemic heart disease, but they are no different from omnivores in terms of total cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases, all-cause mortality and mortality from cancer (3). A second and almost equally large (but differently framed) meta-analysis produced very similar results (4).
One huge and intractable problem that overgrows this field of research is the definition of vegetarian. There are many different ways of being vegetarian, and it seems to me that some of these ways are probably healthier than others.
Vegetarian A, for example, who is physically active and eats large amounts of unprocessed fruits and vegetables is a very different animal from vegetarian B who lives a sedentary lifestyle and consumes smaller amounts of vegetarian foods, most of which are processed. Veggie A is likely to be much healthier than Veggie B. He or she is less likely to be suffering from dysnutrition, and less likely also to be suffering from chronic inflammation; and so Veggie A can expect, on average, a longer and a healthier life. Veggie A has the courage of his/her convictions, and I respect this. In my experience Veggie B tends to be tediously virtue-signalling and a profoundly uncritical thinker, though I have met notable exceptions.
Even Veggie A, however, must be careful to balance his/her intake of grains and pulses, ensuring adequate amino acid intake; pay attention to trace elements (because levels of these depend on the soils in which the plant foods were grown); and focus on individual nutrients such as B12, and the long chain omega 3’s.
The take-home message is mixed. Higher levels of fruit and vegetable consumption is anti-inflammatory, and is associated with reduced all-cause mortality, with the highest level of protection kicking in at around 7 plus portions of fruit and vegetables per day (5).
A moderate intake of carbs is health-positive, providing these are fermentable carbs ie from pulses and legumes, rather than the digestible carbs in most processed foods (6). (That is another argument for Veggie A as opposed to Veggie B).
And meat is not intrinsically dangerous, although here I must make a proviso; it depends on what kind of meat, how it is processed, how it is cooked, and on whether you are eating so much meat that you are not able to eat as much fruits and vegetables.
Processed meats prepared with nitrates are not so good, and should be consumed in moderation due to their content of carcinogenic nitrosamines. Unprocessed meat is not a problem at all, as shown in the above nutritional studies and also by the lessons of history. The mid-Victorian English consumed huge amounts of meat (the perfidious French called the equally perfidious English les Rosbifs for a reason) and yet lived healthier lives than we do today, with far less cancer; partly because they cooked their meat at low temperatures and commonly stewed it with onions, thus minimising the formation of cooked meat carcinogens (7, 8).
The problems of who should eat what diet, however, are not all scientific. Meat may or may not be murder, but it is certainly emotional, and do-gooders and SJW’s of various persuasions love telling us deplorables what to do and – more frequently – what not to do. They ignore the subtleties of the dietary Gordian knot, and reduce it to crude political dictates.
The latest attempt to do this comes from Oxford University, where a gaggle of possibly well-intentioned scientists published an analysis suggesting that we would all be better off if only meat and meat products could be taxed into oblivion (9). These Panglossians calculated that if ‘optimal taxes’ could be introduced, both consumers and the planet would be better off; with the ‘optimal’ rates of tax hitting as high as 34% for red meats and 163% for processed meat products.
This is not science but social engineering, and the scientists should come out and admit it. As one of them is on record as saying that eventually all humans must become vegan, it seems unlikely that their motives are scientific at all but merely prejudice dressed up as science.
To win such emotional battles you must first capture the language of discourse, as the malignant Saul Alinsky pointed out. And in this context, perhaps you can see why the mainstream media are now regaling us with stories about how phrases such as ‘taking the bull by the horns’, and ‘bringing home the bacon’, should go out of fashion because they offend vegetarians.
At the risk of causing offence, mind your own damn self-righteous business. But if the heart of your argument is that the industrialised and unsustainable CAFO system is evil, I agree with you. Reverting to sustainable/local alternatives such as grass-based, free-range, and pastured livestock and poultry would be better for the animals, the economy, the planet – and our health.
Nutrition and health – the association between eating behavior and various health parameters: a matched sample study. PLoS One. 2014 Feb 7;9(2):e88278.
2. Mihrshahi S, Ding D, Gale J, Allman-Farinelli M, Banks E, Bauman AE. Vegetarian diet and all-cause mortality: Evidence from a large population-based Australian cohort – the 45 and Up Study. Prev Med. 2017 Apr;97:1-7
3. Dinu M, Abbate R, Gensini GF, Casini A, Sofi F. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017 Nov 22;57(17):3640-3649.
4. Kwok CS, Umar S, Myint PK, Mamas MA, Loke YK. Vegetarian diet, Seventh Day Adventists and risk of cardiovascular mortality: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Cardiol. 2014 Oct 20;176(3):680-6.
5. Nguyen B, Bauman A, Gale J, Banks E, Kritharides L, Ding D. Fruit and vegetable consumption and all-cause mortality: evidence from a large Australian cohort study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2016 Jan 25;13:9.
6. Seidelmann SB, Claggett B, Cheng S, Henglin M, Shah A, Steffen LM, Folsom AR, Rimm EB, Willett WC, Solomon SD. Dietary carbohydrate intake and mortality: a prospective cohort study and meta-analysis. Lancet Public Health. 2018 Sep;3(9):e419-e428.
7. Clayton P, Rowbotham J. How the mid-Victorians worked, ate and died. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2009 Mar;6(3):1235-53.
9. Springmann M, Mason-D’Croz D, Robinson S, Wiebe K, Godfray HCJ, Rayner M, Scarborough P. Health-motivated taxes on red and processed meat: A modelling study on optimal tax levels and associated health impacts. PLoS ONE 13(11): e0204139. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0204139