Don’t get mad at me, the scientists said it. (Plus, you know how I love a good pun!)
Eating animals has been one of the greatest existential problems of my life. Which either means I’ve had a pretty easy life or I’m prone to dramatics. Both? Seriously though, the decision whether or not to eat meat has caused me more agony than childbirth. Hahahaha no. Childbirth was like PTSD-level pain. But it’s definitely worse than watching all 27 (ish) seasons of Friends and being disappointed that Ross and Rachel ended up together. Or even that time I chopped jalapenos and then took my contacts out with my fingers.
Part of the problem is that it never quite seems resolved to me. I was a vegetarian for years, a vegan for a couple of years and then after getting pregnant and completely flunking out of veggie school (I made out with a Big Mac in my car), I gave it up for good. I was happy being vegetarian but I began having health problems (you can read all the gory details here if you like) and this see-sawing was a major cause of my orthorexia. I just decided that if any research said a food was bad then I wouldn’t eat it. Turns out there’s a lot of research. Which is how I ended up with five safe foods and not being able to eat anything else! When I started intuitive eating, I realized that body intuitively wanted to eat dead animal carcasses. There’s no pretty way to put it but there it is.
One of the nice things about vegetarianism is that it can be very clear-cut. You eat meat or you don’t. Sure you have your pescatarians and fruitatarians and lacto-ovo and other people who like who like confusing waiters. (Veganism, and what constitutes “true” veganism, get dicier.) But really it’s pretty simple. Not easy — but simple. But once you throw everything back on the table — literally if you’re dining with my kids — it gets a lot more confusing. For awhile red meat was the devil’s own muscle tissue and boneless, skinless chicken breasts reigned. Now chicken breasts with their preponderance of omega-6’s are out and grass-fed beef with its omegao-3’s are in. Fish is always good for you (as long as you watch that mercury! Filling out your health bingo card yet?), but expensive. Horse is definitely always on the ‘no’ list. And I never was sure about pork. (Why don’t we farm sheep for meat in America? Always wondered that.)
And so for the past 4 (ish) years I’ve made an uneasy truce with myself, eating meat when I feel like it and trying to buy the best kind we can afford. In the past year or so I’ve gravitated towards eating a higher-fat diet (probably 60% of my calories come from fat now?) and that naturally has lessened my meat intake a bit. On a normal day I don’t eat animal for breakfast or lunch and will have a serving at dinner. And while I feel good about the fats — fats aren’t evil anymore, remember? — I’m still not sure if that’s the “best” diet.
All of which is to say that when I came across this new Austrian study, I had a lot of baggage going into it. The study, published in PLoS One, followed 1,320 people divided into four categories based on their reported dietary preference: Vegetarians, carnivores that eat a lot of produce, carnivores that eat “less meat” and carnivores whose diet is rich in meat. They examined all the people based on their physical health, mental health and how often they sought health care.
Now, if you were to guess based on conventional wisdom which group would come out ahead, you’d likely pick the veg-heads. But the research tide has been changing with diets like paleo/primal, Atkins, Dukan and other high-protein, low-carb fare putting up some impressive health scores. (And if we’re going for sanctimony I’d say vegans and the paleo crowd are neck and neck.) Clearly the field was ripe for a showdown.
The researchers found that the vegetarians had a lower BMI* and drank less alcohol but other than that, fared worse on every measure of health. Not only did the vegetarians have more cancer, heart disease and allergies than the omnivores but they also had substantially more mental health issues. The vegetarians even rated their general quality of life as much lower. Oops.
The researchers concluded, “Our study has shown that Austrian adults who consume a vegetarian diet are less healthy (in terms of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), have a lower quality of life, and also require more medical treatment.” Well then.
So does this mean the paleo folks were right all along? Maybe. I have to admit that just from my personal experience this rings true. I was less healthy as a vegetarian. Not at first – for years I was okay but looking back I chalk that up to youth since my usual “meal” was popcorn and Sweetarts candy. (But it was fat free! I thought I was being so “good”! Yikes.) But as soon as I got pregnant and had to support a growing baby, I wanted all meat all the time. And the media has taken this study and run with it, an orgy of “I told you so!”s.
But while I love a good confirmation bias like the rest of them, there are some obvious problems with this study.
1. Vegetarians may worry more about health in general which is why they’re veg in the first place. For most of us, being vegetarian isn’t the diet we were born into and so it takes a conscious reason to change to eating that way. And for a lot of people it’s because they’re having some kind of health issue that other medicine can’t help (or they don’t want it to). There is no way to tell if they went veg because of poor health or if the vegetarianism caused the health issues. (Although clearly the vegetarian diet isn’t helping the people with their health problems.)
2. The study didn’t differentiate between types of vegetarians. True story: I once went to a party with a vegetarian friend and I handed her a plate of salad. “What’s this?” she asked, genuinely curious about the green stuff on her plate. “It’s spinach,” I answered, agog. Now I’m not judging her for not liking spinach but it did seem pretty ironic that a vegetarian couldn’t recognize one of the most common vegetables. Turns out her brand of vegetarianism was pasta with red sauce, pizza with tomato sauce and cheese sandwiches with ketchup. I’m just saying that they differentiated between meat eaters who ate a lot of produce and those who don’t (which those results are kind of surprising too, right??) so I think they should have done the same with vegetarians. You can’t assume vegetarians are eating all veggies all the time.
3. Self reported data. Gah! It’s the bane of research! People are lying liars who lie, especially when it comes to our health so it’s hard for me to believe they were all entirely honest.
4. It’s in Austria. Clearly vampires don’t do well as vegetarians. Duh. (So sorry Austria, I had to go there! Joke was too good!) No, actually, my point is that it’s a relatively small sample of people in a fairly homogeneous country so it may not be representative of humans at large.
In the end, this study does make me feel a little better about being an omnivore now — if only because it proves I’m not the only one who felt like a failure at vegetarianism. And it doesn’t change the way I eat. And yet there’s still a small part of me that wishes I could make being a vegetarian work again. Either way I think there definitely needs to be more research. MAHR RSRCH NOWWWW!!! (Because Zombies aren’t good vegetarians either. Duh.)
What’s your take on this study? Any other failed vegetarians like me out there?? Anyone else gravitating towards a really high-fat diet (seriously I’m keeping the coconut business in the black!)?
*Remember lower BMIs are only correlated with health to a point. If you recall, the people with the best life expectancy turned out to be those in the “overweight” category. That is, if BMI means anything to you. It’s really a senseless measure.
PS In case you missed the memo I did a major site overhaul over the weekend and since I did it myself there might be a lot of um… issues. Please tell me if something’s not working or you can’t find something or if you just hate it. (You can tell me if you love it too!) Thanks for your patience