By Jillita Horton, HoneyColony Original
Meat lovers like to point out that there’s no such thing as a sick-looking tiger. Devout vegetarians like to fire back, “Ever see a sick-looking elephant?”
The ultimate question is, who lives longer and healthier: human omnivores (meat-plus-plant diet) or human vegetarians?
Many large-scale studies have compared lifespans and disease incidence of omnivores and vegetarians, showing that vegetarianism can lead to a longer and healthier life. However, these studies tend to be general, with no accounting for the many variables other than meat eating that could influence life span and health.
Determining if vegetarians on average live longer than meat eaters is very complicated, says nutrition expert Dr. Jonny Bowden. Bowden is a nutritionist and author of the bestselling book The Great Cholesterol Myth.
Bowden claims that it’s “almost impossible to separate vegetarianism from other factors. For example, Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians, and their mortality rate is a tiny bit less than ‘regular people,’ but Seventh Day Adventists also don’t smoke, don’t do alcohol, and don’t do drugs. They rarely die from drunk driving, for example. People who become vegetarians often have other habits that can account for the difference.”
Bowden cites a 1999 meta-analysis that combined data from five studies and found that vegetarians had a mortality rate of .84, meaning a 16 percent lower chance of dying at a given point in time compared to regular meat eaters. “However,” Bowden says, “vegans had the same rate of dying as meat eaters, so go figure.” Bowden notes that in this study, the vegetarians had far lower smoking rates, which could actually have been the primary reason for reduced mortality.
Just What Is A Meat Eater Or A Vegetarian, Anyway?
Meat eaters, like vegetarians, are an eclectic group whose lifestyles may share little in common other than the inclusion of flesh on their plates.
“No study has ever tracked meat eaters who also have extremely healthy lifestyles,” Bowden says. He’s referring, for example, to meat eaters who carefully adhere to choosing only grass-fed meat, eat a ton of vegetables, don’t smoke, and exercise regularly. “Most epidemiological studies that track diet against disease, death rates, heart disease, etc., rely on food questionnaires—people are asked ‘how many times a month do you eat … x, y, z.’ When people report ‘meat,’ they almost always mean regular, commercial meat, which is a nightmare–like bologna, salami, hot dogs, processed meat, factory-farmed meat with steroids, hormones, and antibiotics. Furthermore, those people tend to also have higher rates of smoking, lower rates of exercise, etc., ad infinitum.”
According to Bowden, researchers do try to control for those factors in their work, but they don’t always succeed, nor do they necessarily always identify the right factors to control for specific studies.
It would be interesting and informative to have a large study pitting followers of the Paleo diet against followers of the Standard American Diet (SAD), which is, SADly enough, replete with processed, high-sodium meats, canned vegetables, and frozen dishes full of additives and sugars.
“The bottom line,” Bowden says, “is that there may be some evidence of slightly longer lives in vegetarians in some studies, but those studies are deeply confounded by all the lifestyle factors that are very hard to tease out.” And to compound the matter, it’s totally possible to eat the unhealthiest diet in the world and still technically qualify as a vegetarian. For example, a kid who won’t eat ‘anything that had a face’ is perfectly happy to survive on pasta and Cocoa Krispies; he’s technically a vegetarian, but in nobody’s book is he healthy.”
Thus, when you hear about a vegetarian who gets cancer, you shouldn’t be shocked. Some “vegetarians” are merely non-meat eaters. Remember, dangerous substances in foods such as trans fats, high-fructose corn syrup, and other man-made sugars, pesticides, and preservatives do not come from meat.
Regardless Of Flawed Research, True Plant-Powered Diets Still Rock
Don’t let the simplicity of epidemiological studies steer you away from cutting back on meat and filling up more on plant-based all natural foods. Though the studies may be, in a way, crude, a diet steeped in processed meats has never been associated with lower rates of any disease, let alone linked to a longer life span.
What person with chronic sickness has ever claimed that switching to a diet laden with processed and conventionally grown meats obliterated their ailments? And why is it that every culture that has exceedingly low rates of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and obesity rarely consumes red meat? Sure, these cultures typically get a lot more exercise, but even still, research exists that cannot be ignored.
For example, the German Cancer Research Center conducted a study exceeding 21 years showing that female non-meat eaters cut their mortality by 30 percent, and that male vegetarians cut their risk of early death by 50 percent. More than 1,900 vegetarians participated in the study. The GCRC study included a range of eaters: from vegans (no animal products), strict vegetarians (no flesh), and moderate vegetarians (occasional fish or meat). Results were similar among all three groups.
Observational research corroborates these findings. Cultures such as the Inuit Eskimos, in which red meat consumption is infrequent or non-existent, have much lower rates of cancer (and other modern disease) than do people on meaty Western diets. In Okinawa, Japan, inhabitants rarely touch meat, and this region produces more centenarians than any other region. Again, however, it’s tempting to attribute these differences—at least in part—to these groups’ higher rates of physical activity and lower rates of drinking and smoking.
However, there is a reason that the American Dietetic Association endorses a vegetarian diet for fighting chronic disease. In fact, the Diabetes Care journal recently reported that risk of diabetes, stroke, and heart disease can be lowered with a vegetarian diet.
A longer life begins with cutting the risk of these prevalent maladies. There are many ways to do this, including exercising more and smoking and drinking less. Most experts agree that other surefire strategies include eating more vegetables and other plant foods and eliminating processed and conventional meats.
Though some passionate meat eaters manage to make it into their 80s and 90s, we must realize that there are always exceptions to any rule, and that we can’t take our eyes off the big picture. After all, haven’t we all heard the one about so-an-so’s 100-year-old uncle who smoked two packs a day for 80 years and took his scotch straight up? How many more healthy years would that meat eater—or heavy smoker or drinker—have lived had he been a “clean” vegetarian? It’s a fair question.
Food for thought: Of the top 10 creatures who live the longest (140 to 211 years), none are carnivores and only two are omnivores. Eight of the longest lived species are vegetarian sea creatures: no beef or chicken to be found in the ocean!
We still need more long-term, large-scale studies to further define just how diet impacts life span, but the findings of various studies on red meat can’t be ignored. Frankly speaking, nor can the link between red meat and cancer.
Carcinogenic Protein Platter, Anyone?
Research clearly links consumption of animal protein with cancer development. According to the very large-scale China Study, a daily diet exceeding 10 percent of its protein from animals triggers a cancer-promoting gene. In the investigation, the switching on and off of this gene was manipulated by changes in protein source and amount. Plant foods did not switch on the gene.
For those questioning the China Study–and it has certainly drawn its fair share of sharp criticism—other studies from Germany and England also show a cancer and meat connection: A plant diet doubles the number of immune system cells that fight cancer, when compared to meat eaters. This report appears in the highly respected and peer-reviewed journal Nutrition and Cancer.
Though studies linking meat to cancer may get a thumbs-down from skeptics, those same skeptics have yet to produce a single study showing that eating a lot of vegetables, let alone having a strict vegetarian diet, promotes cancer. That’s potent food for thought, to say the least.
Why Would Meat Promote Cancer? Aren’t We Cavepeople, After All?
A huge criticism of meat is that it contains carcinogens in the form of pesticides, antibiotics, and hormones ingested by the livestock. Grain-fed meats also contain more unhealthy saturated fats and fewer healthy omega-3s than does grass-fed beef. This begs the question: Would the cancer connection be eliminated if a person ate only grass-fed beef and wild game, in other words, the flesh of animals that consume what nature designed these animals to eat, rather than chemically treated grains?
We won’t know the answer to that question without large-scale studies comparing conventional and processed meat eaters to grass-fed and natural meat eaters.
The Skinny On Plants Vs. Flesh
None of this means you can never touch a morsel of meat ever again if you want a long, healthy life. The real bottom line—based on the various epidemiological studies plus the facts about processed and conventional meats–is that you’ll be doing your body a tremendous and well-documented favor by shifting toward a plant-based diet.
“As a registered dietitian, I’m familiar with the health-related benefits of following a vegetarian-style of eating, including a lower risk of death from heart disease as well as lower blood pressure and rates of hypertension than non-vegetarians,” says Alison Massey, registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland. “I do try to encourage many of my patients to incorporate more ‘meatless’ meals throughout the week and to decrease consumption especially of fatty cuts of meats, which are high in saturated fat and sodium.”
Ultimately, though, Massey concurs with Bowden’s take on the variables that can make a “vegetarian” diet unhealthy. “There is not a ‘perfect’ style of eating because we can make all diets ‘unhealthy’ by focusing on packaged, processed foods instead of naturally nutrient-rich foods. I have certainly met with some vegetarians who don’t have a ‘healthy’ meal pattern and need some guidance to ensure that they are getting all the nutrients they require. I think it is important to acknowledge with any diet pattern the health benefits of incorporating more naturally occurring nutrient-rich foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts/seeds, and whole grains regardless of whether someone chooses to eat like an omnivore or herbivore.”
Some Guidelines For Healthier Eating
When you do eat meat, make it grass-fed or wild game, without any processing, and do not overcook or char it over a flame. Charred meat produces carcinogenic compounds called heterocyclic amines.
Fill up on plant-based whole foods when hungry.
Avoid trans fats and foods with synthetic chemicals. The closer a food is to nature, the better it is for you!
Remember this: It has never been shown that anybody ever got sick, let alone developed cancer, because they cut back on grain-fed or processed animal-derived products and replaced them with whole plant sources. If you’ve been feeling crummy lately or have battled various ailments for years, see what less conventional meat and more fresh, whole plant-based foods will do for you.
Photo by Karin Patry/Flickr.