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Myth busting – Part 3

Myth: Vegetarians are healthier than meat eaters, because eating meat is bad for you.

Truth: Eating meat is not ‘bad for you’ – go back and read Myth busting – Part 1 again! What do you think your ancient ancestors ate before we started farming?

According to a number of studies, it would seem that many (certainly not all!) vegetarians are indeed ‘healthier’ than many (not all) meat eaters, but there is no real evidence to suggest that it’s got much to do with avoiding meat.

There is a lot of confusion around this area. Studies have attempted to look at the differences between vegetarians and meat eaters – but what does ‘vegetarian’ really mean? It’s a self-reported ‘condition’, it’s not like ‘people over 6 foot tall’ or ‘black people’ or ‘women’ – these are irrefutable facts that are visible to all eyes. But many vegetarians report themselves to be vegetarians when in fact, they are not. There are varying degrees of vegetarianism, and it is quite common for people to claim to be vegetarians when they ‘occasionally’ eat meat.

I personally know several people who describe themselves, with complete sincerity, as vegetarians, yet they openly admit that they get drunk once a month and have a big greasy meaty kebab on their way home from the pub! Or they are ‘vegetarian’ all week, then order a Chinese take away on Saturday night and enjoy tucking into sweet ‘n’ sour chicken! I know so-called vegetarians who treat themselves to a chicken vindaloo once a month then go back to being a vegetarian! These people actually laugh it off and they think they can wake up the next day, go back to their hummus and tofu and be a vegetarian again….until next time! Seriously?!?!?

I have met a couple of people who describe themselves as lifetime vegans, saying they have abstained from animal foods for 20 or 30 years and they enjoy great health. Fascinated to learn more (like how they avoid B12 deficiency, do they use supplements?) I chat with these people, and find out that they eat cheese almost every day, they eat fish from time to time “only in restaurants” and they eat eggs for breakfast on Sundays! And they put cow’s milk in their tea six times daily, and they wear a leather jacket, leather shoes, etc. Vegan! Really?? It never fails to amaze me how these people cannot see anything weird or ironic in claiming to be vegan!

Often, big studies looking at thousands of people, or even tens of thousands, over long periods of time, rely on self-reported data. That is, forms are handed out (or these days, completed online) and people are asked to tick a box to describe themselves. If folks tick ‘vegetarian’ then, in a big study of many thousands of people, little further is done to ascertain ‘how vegetarian’ that person really is.

This means that often times self-reported studies on vegetarian populations are tricky. The term ‘vegetarian’ sometimes means no animal foods at all, sometimes it means no meat, but dairy, eggs and fish are allowed. Some people are pescatarian (fish eaters) and some only eat meat very rarely. Some don’t eat meat and fish, but they do eat eggs and dairy. Some only eat eggs or fish ‘once in a while’. So in these studies, there can be a lack of clarity over what ‘vegetarian’ really means.

And then the ‘other side’ of the study looks at ‘meat eaters’. Well what does that really mean? It’s basically everyone who didn’t categorise themselves as a vegetarian. Again we find some people do not chose to describe themselves as vegetarian, though in fact they really eat meat. I know some people who eat fish a couple of times per week and eggs a couple of times per week, but rarely eat meat, but would never think to call themselves vegetarian or pescatarian. It’s actually entirely possible to get some people who eat eggs once a week and a kebab once a fortnight, and describe themselves as vegetarian, while someone else does not report being vegetarian, but they actually hardly ever eat meat or dairy, and just have fish a couple of times per week. See how such ‘self-selecting demographic groups’ can be unclear?

And then, the self-reported meat eaters, are they eating ‘junk’ meat, the cheapest cuts, cheap processed sausages and burgers, or are they eating grass-fed, pastured meat from freely ranged animals? Again, those big studies done over the last 50 or 60 years looking at tens of thousands of people make no distinction here. Go back to Myth busting – Part 1 for links to more on that difference between top quality meat and cheap processed meat.

Making healthier choices

Next up, there is the most obvious issue with studies of vegetarians versus meat eaters – the fact that many people who report themselves to be vegetarian have chosen that way of eating in an attempt to seek a healthier lifestyle. Many people believe that it is healthier to be a vegetarian – to not eat foods from animal sources – because of worries over the harmful effects of saturated fat (see Myth busting – Part 1) and cholesterol (see Myth busting – Part 2!)

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So people switch to vegetarianism as a ‘healthy lifestyle choice’. Well, it just so happens that people who make this choice for health reasons also often make other lifestyle choices for health reasons too…they tend not to smoke, tend to drink less, overeat less often, avoid junk food (not always, some vegetarians eat an awful lot of rubbish!), exercise more regularly, rest and sleep more, meditate, get more fresh air and take fewer drugs! Not always, but often.

So when a study tracks a large sample of people, perhaps ten thousand vegetarians versus ten thousand meat eaters, while the researchers try to measure for obvious things like smoking, many other factors are not measured. Many of the vegetarians make all-round healthier choices, and this bias can account for any of the supposed health benefits observed in the results. A big chunk of the ten thousand people calling themselves vegetarian (remember many eat some fish and eggs anyway, avoiding long-term nutritional deficiencies such as vitamin B12) also make many other healthier lifestyle choices, whereas the ‘meat eaters’ group can include pretty much anyone – possibly including many folks who perhaps drink heavily or eat lots of junk food and processed food.

Then the results of the study show something like ‘vegetarians outlive meat eaters by an average of 8 years’, or ‘vegetarians get 10% less heart disease’ or ‘14% less cancer’ – really, there is nothing conclusive about these results at all, but vegans make a lot of noise about it, because the results seem to promote their cause.

I absolutely respect anyone who makes the choice to be a vegan or vegetarian because they care about animal welfare. I care about animal welfare too. I believe we are supposed to eat animals, but that doesn’t give us any right to mistreat them while they are alive. Core Principle 8 is all about promoting better standards in animal husbandry, both for animal welfare and human health too.

 

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