If you’ve adopted a vegetarian diet solely for health reasons, you may want to reconsider the decision. In a recently published controversial study, vegetarians were found to be overall less healthy than people who have at least some meat in their diet. Specifically, even though the vegetarians had the average lowest BMI and drank less alcohol than people who ate meat, the vegetarians had a higher occurrence of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders, and an overall poorer quality of life. The vegetarians were also less likely to seek preventative health care, such as vaccines, but more likely to need health care treatments.
The study looked at the diets and health of 1320 people in Austria, divided up into four different diets (with 330 people for each diet): vegetarian; carnivorous but “rich in fruit and vegetables;” carnivorous and “less rich in meat;” carnivorous and “rich in meat.” Vegetarians had the worse self-reported health, more psychological health disorders (they more frequently suffered from anxiety and/or depression), worse social relationships, more visits to the doctor, and more chronic health conditions compared to people with at least some meat in their diet. The higher number of doctor visits may be due to the greater occurrence of chronic health conditions, combined with a decreased likelihood of seeking preventative health care (like vaccines). The healthiest diets were the carnivorous diets that were either rich in fruit and vegetables or the “less rich in meat” diet, while the “rich in meat” diet had its own associated problems, such as the highest average BMI.
So while it might be suggested to try a vegetarian diet to help manage chronic health conditions, and/or manage weight, this approach likely deserves further scrutiny. Vegetarians did indeed have the average lowest BMI (22.9, compared to 24.9 for the people who had a diet rich in meat), but there are clearly health complications associated with this diet. It’s possible this is because people are not properly compensating (e.g., via vitamins) for nutritional requirements they’d normally be receiving from eating meat. There may also be other lifestyle and nutritional factors that are affecting the apparent results of the study. Ultimately, as the authors themselves state, we still don’t know “what is the cause and what is the effect.”
(As a side note, the authors of the study have already stated that their research is not “simply an advertisement for the meat industry.”)
As with many things in life, when it comes to diet, moderation (e.g., not eating too much meat, or having an entirely vegetarian diet) may be the healthiest choice.
For further reading:
- Nathalie T. Burkert et al.’s article “Nutrition and Health — The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample StudyM” in PLOS ONE
- Heather Saul’s article “Vegetarians are ‘less healthy and have a lower quality of life than meat-eaters,’ scientists say”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Stem Cells and Modern Medicine