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Vegetables vs. meat: More health evidence stacks up

From where I sit, the writing on the wall keeps getting clearer: A vegetarian diet is a pathway toward greater health that more people are choosing to take—and even greater numbers may be compelled to try, to reverse or mitigate scary diagnoses like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

From where I sit (granted, at my editor’s desk in health-conscious Boulder, Colorado) the writing on the wall keeps getting clearer: A vegetarian diet is a pathway toward greater health that more people are choosing to take—and even greater numbers may be compelled to try, in an effort to reverse or mitigate scary diagnoses like type 2 diabetes.

In a study published in Diabetes Care this week, vegetarians scored much better on the handful of factors—blood sugar, blood fats, blood pressure, waist size, and body mass—that together can create metabolic syndrome, or prediabetes. (Cholesterol was the only count where they weren’t lower than nonvegetarians.)  "Even after the findings were adjusted for physical activity, gender, age, calorie and alcohol intake, the results persisted and remained significant," says lead researcher Nico Rizzo of Loma Linda University.

Interesting study tidbits:

  1. Of more than 700 study subjects, 23 of every 100 vegetarians had at least three metabolic syndrome factors, compared to 37 of every 100 semi-vegetarians (eating meat or poultry less than once a week) and 39 of every 100 nonvegetarians. As someone who eats essentially no red meat, and chicken about once a week, I was surprised semi-vegetarians’ health stats weren’t much better than nonvegetarians. So much for moderation!
  2. The vegetarians in the study were three years older than the nonvegetarians, on average—which makes their robustness even more impressive. 
  3. The study didn’t specify whether the vegetarians were lacto-vegetarian (eating dairy) or not. Rizzo says his team plans to look more specifically at vegan and lacto-ovo individuals, and overall nutrient content of the diets in future studies.

Coming on the heels of last month’s news of a major National Cancer Institute-led study that found older adults who ate the most fiber—especially from whole grains and beans—were 22 percent less likely to die during the nine-year study period, I personally feel more convinced than ever that eating more vegetables and less meat will improve my wellbeing.

There’s plenty of room for debate on this. Delicious Living’s eminently well-informed and experienced medical editor, Robert Rountree, MD, often reminds me that individuals’ genetics are probably the strongest indicator of what type of diet they best tolerate. And don’t even ask my Traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncturist, who never fails to encourage me to build my blood by eating just a little red meat, maybe a nice broth or a stew…  


Discuss this Blog Entry 4

Anonymous (not verified)
on Apr 12, 2011

What is difficult to assess is the overall status of grass-fed meat eaters in comparison to vegetarians. In many parts of the world including large portions of agricutural land in the U.S., animal husbandry is the basis of a sustainable agriculture. This is often ignored in the discussion of health. It is very possible that it is imperative to include animals and animal based proteins in our diets in order to feed the world.

on Apr 13, 2011

Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Certainly, different solutions work in various parts of the world. And pasturing and grazing are the most eco-friendly ways to raise meat. As global population grows, though, I wonder how much meat is really sustainable for how many of us to eat. (I also wonder how much pesticide use is sustainable long term.) No doubt, piecemeal solutions will persist. In the end, tastes seem to be very personal and/or cultural, and will change slowly.

VeganHolisticHealthCoach (not verified)
on Apr 14, 2011

@Anonymous- What studies can back this up? I don't remotely believe it is imperative to include animal products in our diets in order to feed the world. That makes no sense. Just like Monsanto wants us to believe we need GMO's, pesticides, etc. to feed the world. The U.S. wastes food like crazy! We are hardly starving. We have too much food, just a corrupt food system who does not manage it properly because they're only concerned with profit.

From the United Nations report "Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Consumption and Production":

"Food production is the most significant influence on land use and therefore habitat change, water use, overexploitation of fisheries and pollution with nitrogen and phosphorus. In poorer countries, it is also the most important cause of emissions of greenhouse gases (CH4 and N2O). Both emissions and land use depend strongly on diets. Animal products, both meat and dairy, in general require more resources and cause higher emissions than plant-based alternatives."

Susan, you are absolutely right that different solutions will work in different parts of the world. In the U.S., the current demand for animal products is astronomical! People expect to eat them at least three times a day and expect them to be cheap. That's why billions of animals are bred, raised, and slaughtered and it's subsidized. Trying to meet that demand by raising animals "naturally" is ludicrous. The demand would have to lessen tremendously. Where would these animals be raised? How many people could be fed this way? I think it's sideways thinking, and it would not feed the poor because it costs more. And animals regardless how they're bred and raised still have to be watered, fed, given vet care, produce waste, etc.

The only solution is to lessen the demand for animal products. You don't have to completely give them up-just reduce them. I've happily done my part. I was lacto-ovo vegetarian for four years and have been vegan for over ten years now. It's the best thing I've ever done for me, animals, and the planet. And as for animal husbandry, I feel that must be rare in this country. Livestock animals are not even the same as the were originally since they've been so bastardized by man. I believe the species that have not been altered or the least altered are considered heirloom varieties. Heirloom varieties of an animal. I don't care for the sound of that!

Oh, and Susan my Traditional Chinese Medicine acupuncturist knows I'm vegan so she never, ever suggested I eat red meat but did suggest beets and other deep red plants. If iron is an issue, then I eat spinach or raw cacao which contains more iron than beef per serving.

on Apr 14, 2011

Thanks again, all great, informed points. It's an education we all would benefit from undertaking. Thanks for the passion! And good health to you...

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