I live in Boulder, Colorado, the fittest and most veggie city in America. Don’t take my word for that, it just received those honors for a record 3 of the last 4 years. Obesity is rare here and Boulder has it’s significant share of Vegetarians. In fact, if you found yourself here on a business trip and were a Vegetarian, unlike in the rest of America, you’d find a wide array of restaurant and food choices. This is why a new study published this week is so interesting and controversial here – nay, “sacrilege”. It purports to have found that Vegetarians are skinny, sick, and unhealthy!
The study looked at more than thirteen hundred people who were either Vegetarian, meat eaters who ate otherwise healthy fruits and veggies, those who ate less meat, and true “carnivores” who ate more meat. They found an association with being skinnier and drinking less alcohol and being a vegetarian. Skinny teetotalers, so what could be better, albeit less boring? Well that’s where the good news seems to end. Their results also show that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life! This is downright Boulder Blasphemy! It also seems to have pissed off quite a few traditional nutritionists who are trying hard to spread the gospel about fruits and vegetables.
So what gives? I’ve pasted one of their data tables above and highlighted what was statistically different between the groups. What’s interesting is that the rich in meat group does pretty well across almost all comparisons. The meat and vegetables crowd doesn’t do as poorly as the vegetarians, but doesn’t fare all that well in many categories. Now recognize that this study has many limitations in how the data was collected. However, perhaps most importantly, it also may represent “Selection Bias”, or the fact that people in a modern industrialized society who are sicker and not thriving on the standard fare tend to make the conscious choice to become vegetarians as a way to try and solve their ills. The bad news is that the switch doesn’t work so well. In addition, it certainly flies in the face of conventional nutrition wisdom, which is why I like it! Science only evolves when someone has the guts to stand up and mix it up.
The upshot? On the one hand regarding whether you should become a vegetarian or eat loads of meat, this new study isn’t a convincing argument that you should become a vegetarian for your health. On the other hand, it’s so riddled with selection bias that it’s also not a convincing argument that becoming a vegetarian is a bad idea. It should however prompt more research that can take large groups of people from being meat eaters to vegetarian and measure the health consequences of that dietary shift in the average man or woman. The good news is that if you do like your steaks and “Paleo”, this study will make you feel all warm and fuzzy about your choice. The bad news is that it has upset an entire town in Colorado!