Disclaimer: I have a deep and abiding respect for vegetarians and vegans because many choose to forgo eating animals due to ethical and environmental beliefs. This is valid and honorable. However, I disagree with them that meat-eating is inherently unhealthy and unnatural for humans (the same goes for saturated fats for the same reasons I’ll discuss). There appears to be no science (randomized controlled trials) that actually backs up their claims (“The China Study” is neither scientific nor interesting: it is only a single, observational epidemiological study that shows associations, not cause and effect, and is likely confounded and biased (meaning, that the whole host of dietary and lifestyle habits associated with meat-eating in modern-day China, India, and America, might be what are causing harm, not the meat-eating itself, see Taubes links below for more information). If anyone does have compelling scientific research showing meat-eating to be bad or vegetarianism/veganism (hereafter referred to as “VV”) good, relative to the other, please let me know. Thanks.
Here is an interesting video by a former vegan, Denise Minger, that highlights logical flaws in vegetarian/vegan (VV) arguments against meat-eating in terms of human health. I am not addressing environmentalism or ethics here, just human health.
Her snarky, mocking tone aside, she makes a lot of good points, namely: that VV are associated with A LOT of different lifestyle and nutritional changes that make VV followers different then the average American meat-eater. And that, ultimately, it may be the fact that VVs are eating less sugar, refined grains and starches (i.e. potato chips), drinking less, smoking less, meditating more, exercising more, blah blah blah that gives them a protective shield against insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome relative to the average American meat-eater (at least in America – in India, VV’s may be just as fat, if not more so, then non-VVs).
Plus the fact that a gillion recent randomized controlled trials comparing a high meat, low carb diet to a more-vegetarian, higher carb diet show the high-meat diet leading to lower body fat and better heart health (at least in obese people up to two years when “heart health” is defined as higher HDL, lower tryiglycerides, and less small-dense, apo-B, LDL particles).
Interestingly, when you look at diabetes and obesity in India, these diseases may be as or more common in the vegetarian populations than in meat-eating ones (I say may because I cannot find a high-quality, nationally-representative study assessing obesity relative to food intake in India that states this and am simply going off of anecdotal evidence: my boss, who is Indian, says obesity is rampant among India’s vegetarian populations and I witnessed this firsthand at a recent party at my wife’s Indian friends’ house: around 10 of the 12 native Indian people that I met at the recent party all were overweight or obese yet vegetarian (btw, dinner consisted of copious fried bread, i.e. samosas, and sweets)). This is obviously not a scientific observation but it’s an important one nonetheless.
I think again, at least in certain Indian populations (mainly the urban elite), that vegetarianism is associated with sugar and refined carb intake (possibly the main drivers of insulin resistance and “diabesity”) just as meat-eating is associated with sugar and refined carb intake in America (or in any population that becomes wealthier – meat AND sugar intake increase in tandem, except in historically-VV populations such as in India). Both nutritional habits are proxies for sugar intake (which is why I think VVs and paleos should unite against processed, high-sugar, high-refined carb, fake food to save our nation from our diabesity quagmire).
I am not aware of any studies that claim to show the benefits of a no-meat diet that actually compare only the individual meat variable, which is what you have to do to make claims that meat is bad for your health. Since these studies do not do this, one cannot say that meat is inherently unhealthy (omega-6:omega-3 ratios aside). And studies that make this claim, like Walter Willet’s latest Nurse’s Health Study laugh-riot, likely do not fully control for differences between the average American VV and meat-eater in their study (though Dr. Hu claims they did isolate the independent effect of meat on mortality here) (if you want a great example of how bad this study and observational epidemiology can be, at least in terms of how it’s used by health authorities and interpreted by today’s media, read this and this by Gary Taubes).
I think Willett’s results may be self-fulfilling: i.e., 40 years ago, health authorities came to believe that saturated fat >raised total cholesterol>heart disease and therefore, because meat (especially red meat and organ meat) has a lot of saturated fat, everyone who wants to be healthy should eat less of it. Therefore, people who wanted to be “healthy” ate less meat, and also smoked less, drank less, exercised more, were likely wealthier and more educated (higher SES)…this means that the Nurse’s Health Study cohort was full of some people, who Taubes calls “the girl scouts” of the group, who did all of these healthy things together and also ate less red meat. So when we examine CVD (cardiovascular disease ie. heart attack and stroke) and total mortality between the highest meat eaters vs. the lowest meat eaters (the VVs or “girl scouts” of the cohort), it might be that the meat>death association is confounded by differences in smoking, drinking, weight, BP, diabetes, SUGAR intake (which was not “controlled for” or excluded in their mathematical models), exercise habits, SES, etc. This means that all of these related factors that track with high meat consumption could be making the “anti-girl scouts” less healthy and more at risk of death than the VV “girl scouts.” Therefore, it might not be the meat, but all of the factors, especially sugar/HFCS (HF 55, or, high fructose corn syrup) that, at least in America over the past 40 years, trend, associate, correlate, are linked to meat consumption. Meaning, it may be the sugar, not the meat itself (or possibly an interaction from the two).
To summarize Minger’s point from her video above, Dean Ornish tells his patients to not eat sugar, refined carbs, vegetable oils, drink alcohol, and to exercise and meditate more, all while improving their social networks and then states that it is the vegetarian aspect of his diet that makes people better. He cannot do this while claiming to be a true scientist. Obviously, any or all of these variables could be at work in promoting weight loss and better heart health compared with the typical, modern-American diet (lots of refined carbs, sugar, processed meats, no exercise, stressful jobs, etc.).
It is simply scientifically incorrect, and quite idiotic, to assign causal blame to ONE factor in this huge group of lifestyle changes that separate an American VV from the average American meat eater. Personally, I think the main difference may be the differences in sugary drink and sugar/HFCS intake but that’s just a guess.
Until vegans actually conduct (well) a large, randomized controlled trial where they randomize, let’s say, 1000 (or 1 million) obese subjects onto a VV diet (with low refined carbs and sugars) and another 1000 onto, let’s say, a Paleo diet (basically a vegan diet plus animal products), and follow them for 10-50 years, all their talk is just that: talk. Unfortunately, such a study would be insanely expensive so we’ll likely never know. It’s probably best if VVs and paleos turned their sights away from each other and towards the processed food industry because, again, it’s likely the sugar and refined grains/starches (and maybe artificial fats like vegetable oils) that are killing Americans, not meat itself.
Btw, humans likely evolved bigger brains and smaller GI tracts with the advent of hunting and likely need meat to reach their full health potential (i.e. for their genotype to be expressed as the healthiest human phenotype).
Please send me any comments you may have.