All of you plant-eaters need to listen up: You might need to eat some meat after all—or at least rethink your disdain for people like me, who enjoy a tasty steak on occasion.
Yes, former president Bill Clinton credited his vegan diet with outsmarting heart disease and dropping 30 lbs., but he used to eat a lot of burgers and items from the deep-fryer while in the Oval Office.
I like my meat, in moderation, and my tofu, too. So I’m always heartened by studies that show there’s something to be said for a well-balanced diet that’s not afraid of a little pulled pork or full-fat ice cream now and again. OK, full-fat artisanal organic ice cream, for good measure.
New research out of Austria found that a vegetarian diet comes with a slew of problems: Higher rates of cancer, mental illness, allergies and a lessened quality of life, compared to carnivorous diets. Who needs any of those problems?
To come to this conclusion, scientists conducted face-to-face interviews with 1,320 Austrians, who were divided evenly into four different nutritional groups: a vegetarian diet, a carnivorous diet rich in fruits and vegetables, a carnivorous diet less rich in meat and a carnivorous diet rich in meat. If I was included, I’d slot myself into the second group. I’m big into fruits and vegetables (from farmers’ markets when I have the time and energy); they are the keys to good health, when you get a colorful array, with all their potent nutrients. Experts now recommend five to 10 servings a day, so I have my four-year-old son putting baby spinach into his after-school smoothie (sneaky!). Exerting parental control while I still can…
Why Cutting Out Meat May Not Be the Answer
But I think there’s a place for meat, poultry and fish on your plate, too, with the quality fats and proteins they have to offer. You just can’t get it all from edamame (the fancy name for those boiled green soybeans popular in sushi restaurants).
Back to the study: Subjects were matched based on age, sex, education, income and occupation. The vegetarians were not glowing examples of superior health. In fact, they had higher rates of cancer, allergies, depression and anxiety. Some people say that “light, clean” vegetarian eating keeps you mentally sharp and doesn’t weigh you down, but that line of thinking isn’t the case here. Interestingly, too, the study found that the vegetarians went to their doctor for preventative check-ups less frequently than the carnivores who ate fruits and vegetables. They also were vaccinated less often than the other groups.
But Austrians with their yogurt, muesli and mountain hikes have a different lifestyle than us North Americans with our sedentary, fast-food habits. Gross generalizations aside, the study can’t sway vegetarians from their pro-green leanings. It does have its flaws. The data from the in-person interviews are self-reported, so who knows for sure what the groups were eating and whether they were eating a certain way because of their poor health conditions.
Some Might Agree with Vegetarian Eating… Within Reason
Despite the study’s limitations, there is plenty of sound scientific evidence that upholds the vegetarian diet as healthy and nutritionally sound. And the revered Mayo Clinic stands behind it as well, as long as people are aware of nutritional needs and plan their diet accordingly. Incorporating Meatless Mondays, for example, or trying various ethnic restaurants to sample vegetarian staples are good starting points to healthier eating, either way. I’ll second that. If you haven’t tried an Indian-style red lentil curry or vegetarian korma, you’re missing out!
A review published last July in the Journal of the American Medical Association linked a vegetarian diet to lower mortality rates. Researchers out of Loma Linda University in Southern California looked at connections between dietary habits and death in Seventh-day Adventist men and women. These adults share similar lifestyles; they typically don’t smoke or drink, but have a range of dietary patterns, so they’re a good sample for this type of study.
Of the 73,000 participants 25 and older, those on a vegetarian diet tended to have a lower rate of death from cardiovascular disease, diabetes and renal disorders such as kidney failure. The beneficial associations between a vegetarian diet and mortality were stronger in men than in women. I’ve been trying to get my husband out of his pizza-with-pepperoni habit, unsuccessfully, for years now (ever try grilled veggies on a thin crust instead?). However, he does share my passion for hummus, that chickpea wonder-spread with garlic and fresh lemon. So it goes.
The takeaway here is longevity is a commonsense venture. You take it one day at a time, eating well, savoring the tastes and textures of a variety of fresh foods—and letting yourself enjoy a great lean burger (topped with sweet Vidalia onions and garden tomatoes) now and again.
Burkert, N.T., et al., “Nutrition and Health – The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample Study,” PLoS ONE 9(2): e88278. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088278
Orlich, M.J., “Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist Health Study 2,” JAMA Intern Med. July 8, 2013; 173(13): 1230–8. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6473.