Is Vegetarianism Healthy?
I became a vegetarian about two years ago, and have since gone through periods of veganism as well as fish-eating. My choice was mostly motivated by ecological reasons, but I became curious about the health effects of vegetarianism after I noticed changes in how I felt after a change in diet. I found I lost weight as a vegetarian, and had more energy; I also had significantly increased energy in the first month of veganism, though this effect wore off eventually. I wanted to gather more observations to discover if my assumption that vegetarianism was healthier was, in fact, true, and true for people other than myself.
Researching for this paper, I quickly discovered that there is a lot of conflicting information about the implications of vegetarianism on one’s health. This discrepancy is even more evident for veganism. There are many websites claiming to have clinical studies backing their arguments for and against vegetarianism, from the Vegan Society to National Beef Council, and most seem to have a specific agenda that colors their presentation of the studies done on the health effects of a diet low in animal products. Overall, the general consensus appears to be that a vegetarian diet is correlated with lower rates of obesity, heart disease and a longer life expectancy than the average Western diet, though there are other factors that may explain this relationship.
Deciding exactly how vegetarianism is to be defined is of primary importance. Most studies agreed that “a vegetarian diet is broadly defined as a diet excluding animal products such as meat, poultry and fish,” (1) but also recognized that there are variations in diets of individuals, and most studies dealt with a diet that included individuals who are meat once a week or less. That being said, there appear to be many benefits to vegetarianism. One study done in the UK suggests that vegans and vegetarians tend to gain less weight than meat-eating individuals; over a period of five years, Oxford University studied the eating habits of 22,000 individuals. Everyone gained an average of two kilos, but those who switched to a vegetarian diet gained about half a kilo less. (2) Vegetarianism has also been shown to lower cholesterol. Prof. David Jenkins of the University of Toronto tested the effect of combining soy protein, nuts and fibers in a vegetarian diet and found that subjects’ cholesterol has dropped by 29% at the end of a month on this diet; researches said “the findings suggested the combination diet may be as effective as statins.” (3) These benefits are particularly relevant for most Americans, since our high-fat, low exercise lifestyles often lead to obesity and high cholesterol, a combination which is very hard on the heart. From these observations, it seems that lowering meat consumption would help combat the heart disease that is so prevalent in our society.
There have also been investigations into whether low meat consumption impacts human life expectancy. One article from 2003 found that of four studies reviewed, four showed that a very low intake of meat was correlated with decreased mortality. (4) This suggests that there is reason to believe vegetarianism is “good for you.” However, another article found that only mortality from ischemic heart disease was effected by level of meat consumption. It was 20% lower in occasional meat eaters as compared to the general population, 34% lower in people who ate fish, 34% lower in lactoovovegetarians and 26% lower in vegans. This data points to the idea that consumption of fewer animal products is not necessarily better for one’s heart, as the vegans had a higher mortality rate from heart disease than those who consumed some animal products.
However, there are factors other than vegetarianism that could account for this, as certain sources were quick to point out. For one, it has been found that a high IQ is linked to being vegetarian. (5) According to a study conducted by Southampton University, vegetarians were more likely to be female, of higher occupational class and have had more education than non-vegetarians. People of this background and with a higher IQ could tend to generally be more aware of health issues, and so less likely to be overweight or have heart disease.
There are certain deficiencies and risks associated with being vegetarian. (1) There are not many plant sources of Vitamin B12, for example, and B12 deficiency can be fairly serious. Iron sources, too, can be problematic; iron from plants appears to be more difficult to absorb than iron from animal products. This is relevant for US diets, as iron is the most common deficiency in the country. Zinc, too, can be difficult to acquire in absence of meat products. However, there are alternate sources and even my most anti-vegetarian source from the National Beef Council stated that a well-planned vegetarian diet can satisfy nutritional needs for individuals in all stages of life.
There were some concerns raised in one article, saying “following a vegetarian diet may be a first step toward eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa.” (1) This would be a legitimate concern, but I was unable to find anything to support this claim in other sources. I would be curious to discover if there is a link between vegetarianism and eating disorders, for example, if it is often used to mask anorexia. But such a relationship, if it does exist, would not be a health concern of a vegetarian diet in the way it is followed by the majority of vegetarians.
The consensus appears to be that while a strict vegetarian diet is not necessarily the most beneficial, a diet in which meat intake is reduced from a traditional Western diet can help to reduce cholesterol and control weight. Naturally, it is important to have a varied, well-planned diet regardless of the amount of meat consumed, but vegetarianism appears to have some benefit. This could be because of other lifestyle choices that frequently accompany lower meat intake, but also because it is a diet that lends itself to higher consumption of “healthy” foods, such as grains and vegetables. This issue is made complicated by the layers of other factors involved that effect health. Are vegetarians less likely to be overweight because of their diet, or because they are likely to be more highly educated? It is a difficult question to answer, but despite the risk of deficiencies in certain areas, there appears to be an association between better health and vegetarianism.
1) http://www.beefnutrition.org/uDocs/ACF3A.pdf; Article linked from the National Beef Council
2) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4801570.stm; “Rejecting Meet Keeps Weight Low” from BBC World News
3) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/2526891.stm; “Vegetarian Diet Cuts Heart Risk” from BBC World News
4) http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/content/full/78/3/526S; “Does low meat consumption increase life expectancy in humans?” from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
5) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/6180753.stm; “High IQ Linked to Being Vegetarian” from BBC World News