Are Vegetarians Really Healthier?
This is part of our “In Medical News” series where Dr. Sara Laudani shares a study or article in recent news and offers some analysis and tips about the news, to help patients stay informed.
A recent article in Medscape reviewed a large study showing that vegetarians have favorable levels of several health indicators, especially cardiovascular markers, versus meat-eaters. This was the largest study to date of its kind.
The authors concluded that the health benefits of vegetarianism were independent of other sociodemographic and lifestyle-related factors. Total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (known as “bad” cholesterol) concentrations for vegetarians were 21% and 16.4% lower than in meat-eaters. But some biomarkers considered beneficial, including vitamin D concentrations, were lower in vegetarians. Additionally, some considered unhealthy including triglycerides and cystatin-C levels were higher in vegetarians.
Vegetarian diets have recently become much more popular, but previous studies haven’t provided enough clarity on the health benefits. Many vegetarians are leaner and practice other healthy lifestyle habits, so this study aimed to minimize confounding factors by adjusting for things like physical activity, smoking, body mass index, alchol intake, and socioeconomic factors.
Long-term Results: Changes Don’t Happen Overnight
In this study, participants had followed their diet (vegetarian or meat-eating) for at least 5 years before the measures were taken. So, it is important to note that switching to a vegetarian diet may not lead to immediate results. Many people switch to various short-term diets, which are unlikely to significantly impact long-term health.
An additional study aimed to investigate what happens to vegetarians’ long-term health. "Over 9 years of follow-up, we have found that vegetarians have a lower risk in terms of myocardial infarction (heart attack) in the long-term, as well as other cardiovascular diseases.” The author also noted that metabolic markers tend to show clear improvement at around 3 months of adopting a particular diet but improvements in disease outcomes take a lot longer.
Health Is Complex
Also, this study showed that health is a complex and individual situation. Each individual measure (i.e. total cholesterol or Vitamin D) only shows part of the picture about an individual’s health. Clearly, there may be health benefits to a vegetarian diet, but eliminating meat does not automatically mean someone is eating a healthy diet either. Many people eliminate meat from their diet but replace it with unhealthy alternatives. Or, they don’t add enough of what they need to get well-rounded nutrition.
Take-Aways for You
- A vegetarian diet or reducing meat-eating may offer health benefits if adopted for the long run, so be consistent! It takes time to influence the expression of our genes.
- Food is information. We are exposed to food “messages” multiple times per day. This information gets delivered to our genes and from this dialogue the expression of our genes changes and can be modulated.
- The good news is that being consistent with “good quality food information” means we can activate the good genes and silence the “bad” ones. This is known as epigenetics.
- This storytelling of food is a gentle consistent whispering in the ear of our unique individual genetic profile, and it requires time and patience: long exposure to lifestyle and dietary changes is necessary to influence our genes’ expression.
- Another positive is that the changes in gene expression can be passed to future generations. Our efforts towards our own health will be the precious inheritance of the coming generations.
- Don’t simply eliminate meat from your diet and expect quick health results. First, the real benefits come over time. Second, the overall diet needs to be healthy and high in the nutrients you need. It is recommended to substitute meat with another source of protein, such as legumes and soy (if no allergy or intolerance or medical reasons to avoid it), possibly organic and non-GMO, and to maintain an adequate intake of the vitamin B complex.
- Practice other healthy lifestyle factors. Though this study showed evidence for vegetarianism independent of other factors, health is complex. Your body works together as a system and many things can affect health. Improve your diet, but also reduce alcohol intake, stop smoking, exercise more, and reduce negative stress.
- Our genes are not our destiny!
- By the way, less meat = a happier planet!
Dr. Sara Laudani offers consultations in internal medicine and functional and nutritional medicine in our Hongmei Road Clinic – Hongqiao. Click here to schedule an appointment with her and find out how her holistic approach can help you resolve your health issues.