Many people become vegetarians because they believe that such a lifestyle is healthier, particularly in terms of heart disease and cancer. They believe that an intake of meat, and particularly animal fat, will shorten their lives.
As evidence of this, a study of largely vegetarian Seventh-Day Adventists is usually quoted (31) despite the fact that its authors conclude: ’ We hope that no-one will take data from this report and use it to say “Food A lowers or food B raises mortality risk”. ’
It is certainly true that this religious sect suffers less from heart disease than the general population. However, the use of this argument to show that vegetarianism is healthier is flawed.
A similar study of Mormons in Utah, who eat a considerable amount of meat, found similar low levels of the disease. In fact, the diet of both communities had little or no impact on their incidences of heart disease; the incidences of the disease is low because they are both close-knit and supportive communities, a situation which is known to be protective as far as such diseases are concerned (32).
Comparisons of the health and longevity of cultures with different dietary habits confirms that meat eaters, such as Eskimos, Nagas and Maasai, can expect to live twice as long as primitive vegetarians.
It may be said that such a comparison is flawed because the situations in which these peoples live is very different but there are cases throughout the world where meaningful comparisons can be made.
In Kenya two tribes, the Maasai and the Kikuyu, live in the same country, the same climate, the same political system and the same environment. The Maasai, when wholly carnivorous, drinking only the blood and milk of their cattle, were tall, healthy, long-lived and slim.
The Kikuyu, when wholly vegetarian, were stunted, diseased, short-lived and pot-bellied. Over the last few decades, the Kikuyu have started to eat meat - and their health has improved. Since 1960 the Maasai diet has also changed, but in the opposite direction. They are now eating less blood, milk and meat, replacing it with maize and beans. Their health has deteriorated (33).
A study by Drs. W. S. McClellan and E. F. Du Bois (34) found that the Eskimos in Baffin Island and Greenland living on a diet composed almost entirely of meat and fish, and eating no starchy or sugary foods, suffered few diseases.
This was not the case with the Labrador Eskimos. They had been ‘civilized’ and lived on preserved foods, dried potatoes, flour, canned foods and cereals. Among them the diseases of civilization were rife.
Dr. Sir Robert McCarrison (35) , working in India, similarly compared the northern tribes - Pathans, Sikhs and Hunzas - who ate meat and fresh vegetables, had fine physiques and were healthy and long-lived with the Plains peoples - Madrassis, Bengalis and Kanarese - who ate little meat or milk, living mainly on rice and who were overweight and unhealthy.
Other studies have purported to show that vegetarianism is healthier. In July 1994, the British press carried headlines like ‘Vegetarian diet means longer life’ as they reported a vegetarian study from the British Medical Journal (36) which said that vegetarians suffered forty percent fewer cancers and heart disease than meat eaters.
But The Public Were Being Misled - The Study Was Badly Flawed.
¨ The study’s vegetarian cohort was selected through the Vegetarian Society and the meat-eaters were then selected by the vegetarians themselves. This is hardly the way to conduct an unbiased trial - if they want to prove a point, and what vegetarian doesn’t, they will pick those who are most likely to be unhealthy. It is human nature.
¨ The vegetarians were mostly women, while the meat-eating group contained more men. Women live longer than men. In the age range of the subjects studied, men have four times the heart disease of women - enough to confound the figures significantly.
¨ The vegetarians were younger than the meat-eaters. As younger people have a lower death rate, one would expect more deaths among the meat-eaters regardless of dietary influences.
In this study, the two groups were not comparable and the study is worthless.
Vegetarianism And Coronary Disease
Other evidence refutes the ‘vegetarianism is healthier’ dogma. London has a high proportion of Asian immigrants. They live in the same environment as the indigenous population and mix freely with them.
But the incidence of coronary artery disease is much higher in the Asian population. A study published in 1985 (37) was pretty conclusive evidence that the Asian’s diet - high in linoleic acid and predominantly vegetarian - was not protective against the disease.
It is usually better to compare similar populations in the same area as, in the study above, the Asians have a different evolutionary background to northern European Caucasians. One study that did this compares vegetarians and fresh fish eaters from two neighboring Bantu villages. (38)
This study found that the fish eaters had higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, lower blood pressure and lower blood fat levels than the vegetarians. Both blood pressure and lipids increased throughout life in vegetarians but remained fairly constant throughout life in the fish eaters.
The published literature on fruit and vegetables and cardiovascular disease is extensive. In 1997, Drs Ness and Powles reviewed some ten ecological studies, three case-control studies, and sixteen cohort studies reporting measures of association between intake of fruit and vegetables (or intake of nutrients mainly obtained from fruit and vegetables) and coronary heart disease, together with five ecological studies, one case-control study, and eight cohort studies for stroke. (39)
They point out that cohorts at ‘low risk’ have failed to show a protective association between intake of fruit and vegetables and cardiovascular disease (for example, a study of 26 473 Seventh Day Adventists followed up for six years, frequently quoted in support of a vegetarian lifestyle being ‘healthy’, showed null findings for fruit, and that many uncertainties remain concerning the relations between consumption of fruit and vegetables and the risk of cardiovascular disease.
The best evidence, surely, is obtained from looking at actual people who have a proven long life. In 1992 scientists at the Department of Community Health, Tokyo Metropolitan Institute of Gerontology, Japan, published a paper which examined the relationship of nutritional status to further life expectancy and health status in the Japanese elderly (40). It was based on three epidemiological studies.
¨ In the first, nutrient intakes in ninety-four Japanese centenarians investigated between 1972 and 1973 showed a higher proportion of animal protein to total proteins than in contemporary average Japanese.
¨ The second demonstrated that high intakes of milk and fats and oils had favorable effects on ten-year survivorship in 422 urban residents aged sixty-nine to seventy-one. The survivors revealed a longitudinal increase in intakes of animal foods such as eggs, milk, fish and meat over the ten years.
¨ In the third study, nutrient intakes were compared between a sample from Okinawa Prefecture where life expectancies at birth and sixty-five were the longest in Japan, and a sample from Akita Prefecture where the life expectancies were much shorter. It found that the proportion of energy from animalproteins and fats were significantly higher in the former than in the latter.