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Health benefits of a vegetarian diet questioned

Three years ago I wrote an apology for not being a vegetarian or a vegan. There are three reasons given for favoring such a diet. One is moral. To eat meat is to use another sentient being for one’s own ends and to be part of the cruel factory farming system that exists in the US. The second is ecological, since using plants to feed animals results in roughly 90% of the energy used to produce plants being lost in the conversion to animal protein, which is a waste of resources. The third is for health since vegetables and fruits reportedly led to better health outcomes.

I felt that the moral argument was the strongest one and was irrefutable, with the ecological one coming in a strong second. As for health, I was not as convinced and felt that as long as one ate a balanced diet in moderation, the health outcomes may well be wash.

I came across this news report that questioned the health advantages of a vegetarian diet. It appeared on April 1, so I thought it may be a joke (I hate April Fools jokes with a passion) but there actually is such a paper that you can read here, the abstract of which says:

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life. Therefore, public health programs are needed in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.

The authors of the study caution against rushing to judgment because they have not shown a causal connection. These studies that correlate health outcomes to diet and lifestyle are notoriously difficult to do and prone to reversals so one should not take this as the definitive word. As the paper’s authors say, the causal relationship might be reversed in that people in poor health might be adopting a vegetarian diet to try improve it.

This might indicate that the vegetarians in our study consume this form of diet as a consequence of their disorders, since a vegetarian diet is often recommended as a method to manage weight and health.

But if it is true that being a vegetarian causes poorer health, that raises an interesting question of why a diet of vegetables and fruits do not have better health outcomes across the board, a surprising result to be sure and was what made me erroneously suspect that the news report might be a hoax.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    As for health, I was not as convinced and felt that as long as one ate a balanced diet in moderation, the health outcomes may well be wash.

    Yeah, since I don’t eat meat people assume that I must be eating healthy. I have to remind them that potato chips and beer are vegetarian, too.

  2. leni says

    When I was a vegetarian I ate a lot of cheese and bread. And Ramen. And I was also poor and a terrible cook, so I can explain it if lots of other vegetarians are as bad at it as I was.

  3. says

    What interests me is that people seem to mistake not shortening their lives (for whatever reason) with lengthening them. But that isn’t really the case; we die more-or-less randomly – speeding up or slowing down our lives isn’t what we’re talking about (and if it were the consequences would also be bizzare) diet affects it a bit, at best.

  4. elly says

    When I was a vegetarian I ate a lot of cheese and bread. And Ramen. And I was also poor and a terrible cook, so I can explain it if lots of other vegetarians are as bad at it as I was.

    Yep. I spent 6+ years modding a private board dedicated to bodybuilding nutrition, and – while most of the members were not vegetarians – there were some. It was common for new members to post sample cutting/gaining diets to make sure they were on the right track, so I got a pretty good look at a lot of people’s diets. Avoidance of fruits and veggies was near universal – the vegetarians were no better (and sometimes worse) at incorporating them into their diets than the omnivores. Even worse, the vegetarians tended to replace meat/eggs with commercial meat substitutes like Quorn and/or protein powders, which provide protein, but are often poor sources of micronutrients.

  5. says

    I know that I should be a vegan, or at least a vegetarian, and that it is only weakness and laziness that prevents me from overcoming my life-long addiction to a diet that includes meat.

    :( You’re not weak or lazy. I know you can do it.

    (Apropos of nothing, have you met Esther the Wonder Pig?)

  6. Mano Singham says

    It is true that one can be a vegetarian or vegan and still eat unhealthily but I had assumed that someone who chose to be so cared somewhat about food and I would not normally expect such a person to replace meat with junk food.

  7. John Morales says

    I buy into the moral and ecological arguments, but it’s undeniable that humans are omnivores (as our dentition and digestive systems demonstrate).

    I am also of the opinion that such health problems as meat provides are generally due to excessive intake; we are not carnivores.

    (And no, this is not the naturalistic fallacy!)

  8. rsm says

    I, like I suspect a fair few people who have given it thought, agree with the moral principle of vegetarianism. The B12 issue as I understand it keeps me away as do the problems relating to raising kids on a vegetarian diet. I could go ovo/lacto/pesca vegetarian without much trouble, but that doesn’t really address the moral issue which would be my primary motivator in the first place. In all cases vegan is flat out. It’s not a viable option where I live even with the abundance of natto and tofu.

    As noted in the original post, this kind of a study is just not particularly reliable to establish cause. I do know that I used to hold with the notion that vegetarians are serious about their diet and were careful to ensure that they maintain a balanced diet. That was my experience with every vegetarian and vegan I met from HS through Uni. It is possible that that may have changed as vegetarian and vegan diets have become more popular and vegetarian fast food and snacks have become more readily available.

  9. estraven says

    My spouse and I were vegetarians for over a decade. We changed our dietary habits eventually when we were able to locate sources of non-CAFO meat. For the past few years we have purchased grass-fed beef from a local guy who takes good care of his animals, and we have bought free-range chickens. We still eat a lot of meatless meals, though, and we never felt deprived in any way when we were vegetarians. I do think factory farms are horrible, environmentally speaking as well as in terms of animal health, and try not to eat products of such. Of course I’m probably highly influenced by having had a father who was a butcher and whose meat products for sale came from local farms–and my grandparents also helped butcher animals and made their own smoked sausage. Despite this I was a very happy vegetarian for quite a few years. I kind of have a slow food philosophy and enjoy cooking from scratch and baking bread and so on; processed food is what I try to avoid, regardless of whether it’s meat or non-meat (ate too many processed soy meat substitutes when I was a vegetarian). Last thing I want to do is lecture other people on what they should eat!

  10. doublereed says

    Child Vegetarianism has a page on whatstheharm.net. Serious dangers to bad dieting.

    Also, don’t forget that candy and chocolate is all vegetarian.

    What interests me is that people seem to mistake not shortening their lives (for whatever reason) with lengthening them. But that isn’t really the case; we die more-or-less randomly – speeding up or slowing down our lives isn’t what we’re talking about (and if it were the consequences would also be bizzare) diet affects it a bit, at best.

    Well, it’s also about living a more energetic and active life. Nutrition obviously affects that sort of thing, but it’s kind of difficult to measure.

  11. filethirteen says

    Also, don’t forget that candy and chocolate is all vegetarian.

    Apologies for shattering your illusions, but lots of confectionery contains gelatine, eg. jelly, marshmallows and anything with marshmallow in it, almost all gummy lollies, in fact most things with a tacky or rubbery consistency. Sorry about that.

  12. Pierce R. Butler says

    A friend of mine used to write for Vegetarian Times and went all over southern California interviewing any celeb who claimed veggie status.

    He told me that he found his subjects fit into two categories: basically healthy, or not. So he proceeded to dig into the question of why, and claimed that he found it:

    The healthy ones cheated.

  13. khms says

    I think it’s pretty obvious that there are good reasons to eat less meat than is currently usual in the West (and even more in the US), and also to improve the selection of non-meat food – that satisfies all three arguments above. It doesn’t need to be an explicitly “vegetarian” or “vegan” lifestyle.

    #3 Marcus Ranum

    What interests me is that people seem to mistake not shortening their lives (for whatever reason) with lengthening them.

    “Not shortening their lives” and “lengthening them” are purely a matter of perspective, there is no actual difference there. It’s just different words.

  14. says

    One of my friend is a vegetarian. In fact, I really like food she cooks, but I can’t eat that every day. But I don’t agree that vegetarianism causes some serious health problems. I guess it’s always a combination of many other factors and vegetarianism itself is not dangerous.

  15. Mano Singham says

    @Julie K.

    I don’t hunk it is dangerous either. I think it may be that being healthy on a vegetarian (and especially began) diet requires more attention to detail to make sure that one is getting all the necessary nutrients and people who don’t exercise that level of care may have some health issues.

  16. Jonny Vincent says

    Excerpts from speech by former Vice-President of Citibank Philip Woollen

    “When we suffer, we suffer as equals and in their capacity to suffer, a dog, is a pig, is a bear, is a boy. Vegetarian cows today are the worlds largest ocean predators. The oceans are dying in our time. By 2048 all our fisheries will be dead.

    “Only 100 billion people have ever lived. 7 billion people live today. And yet we torture and kill 2 billion sentient living beings every week. 10,000 entire species are wiped out every year because of the actions of one and we are now facing the sixth mass extinction in cosmological history. If any other organism did this a biologist would would call them a virus. It is a crime against humanity of unimaginable proportions.

    “Water, as you know is the new oil. Nations will soon be going to war for it. Underground aquifers that took millions of years to fill are now running dry. It takes 50, 000 liters of precious drinking water to make one kilo of beef.

    “Today 1 billion people are hungry…eliminating meat will end starvation forever. If everyone ate a western diet, we would need two planet earths to feed us. We’ve only got one and she is dying.

    “As I travel around the world, I see poor countries who sell their grain to the west while their own children starve in their arms and the west feeds it to livestock so we can eat a steak…every morsel of meat we eat is slapping the tear-stained face of a hungry child. The earth can produce enough food for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.

    “If any nation had developed weapons that could wreak such havoc on the planet, we would launch a preemptive military strike and bomb it back into the bronze age. The axis of evil does not run through Iraq, Iran or North Korea, it runs through our dining tables. Weapons of mass destruction are our knives and forks. There is unimaginable terror in those ghastly Guantanamo’s we call factory farms or slaughterhouses.

    I’d say the moral arguments are strong, if the alternative is extinction. On the other hand, there is a moral argument for extinction. To help you imagine that terror:

    Animal Cruelty at Tyson Food Farms (Walmart supplier) in Oklahoma

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