I have to admit, that was kind of fun. See, what I did with the headline for this post was to look at a couple of observational studies and jump to the kind of unsubstantiated cause-and-effect conclusions so beloved by media health writers – and particularly beloved by many vegetarian zealots.
Take T. Colin Campbell – please. He and his vegan pals show up in vegan propaganda films like Forks Over Knives and solemnly inform the world that in countries with high rates of meat consumption, people are more likely to die of cancer. Must be the animal protein causing the cancer, ya see. (Unfortunately, this unscientific claptrap is persuasive to reviewers like Roger Ebert, who apparently knew a lot about good filmmaking but almost nothing about good science.)
There could be all kinds of reasons other than animal protein causes cancer! that people who live in countries with high rates of meat consumption are more likely to die of cancer. I’ll give you just one: Animal protein is expensive compared to other foods, so people in prosperous countries eat more of it than people in poor countries do. People in prosperous countries also have longer lifespans because of better medical care – which means they live long enough to die from the diseases of old age, including cancer.
T. Colin Campbell, Neal Barnard, John McDougall … I’m sure they’re all intelligent enough to understand that correlation doesn’t prove causation. I’m also sure they don’t care, at least not when they can dig up a correlation that supports their vegetarian agenda. That’s because they consider eating animal foods immoral. It’s a sin, you see, so if they need to tell little white lies in order to stop people from sinning, that’s okay. Nothing wrong with portraying correlation as causation if it supports the true cause.
So in that spirit, let’s take a look at the studies that inspired my headline. Here are some quotes from an online article about a study linking vegetarianism to poor health:
Vegetarians may have a lower BMI and drink alcohol sparingly, but vegetarian diets are tied to generally poorer health, poorer quality of life and a higher need for health care than their meat-eating counterparts.
I think the only correct interpretation of that finding is that if you’re going to be a vegetarian, you should also try to stay fat and drunk.
A new study from the Medical University of Graz in Austria finds that vegetarians are more physically active, drink less alcohol and smoke less tobacco than those who consume meat in their diets. Vegetarians also have a higher socioeconomic status and a lower body mass index. But the vegetarian diet — characterized by a low consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol that includes increased intake of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products — carries elevated risks of cancer, allergies and mental health disorders.
Vegetarians were twice as likely to have allergies, a 50 percent increase in heart attacks and a 50 percent increase in incidences of cancer.
Wow. More physically active, more economically prosperous, less likely to drink, less likely to smoke, and less likely to be fat … yet still more likely to be in poor health, including more likely to develop cancer or suffer a heart attack. Has T. Colin Campbell been informed of this finding?
The cross-sectional study from Austrian Health Interview Survey data and published in PLos One examined participants’ dietary habits, demographic characteristics and general lifestyle differences.
Many past studies have instead put an emphasis on the health risks associated with red meat and carnivorous diets, but this study points the other dietary direction. However, the researchers do caution that continuing studies will be needed to substantiate some of the rather broad dietary distinctions, associations presented in this current research.
No, no, no, we don’t need to be cautious. If we find an association we like in an observational study, we can treat it as cause-and-effect and trumpet it from the hilltops … or in a book called The China Study.
Overall, vegetarians were found to be in a poorer state of health compared to other dietary groups. Vegetarians reported higher levels of impairment from disorders, chronic diseases, and “suffer significantly more often from anxiety/depression.”
So a vegetarian diet will give you mental problems as well. But as a health writer, I don’t want to rely on a single study to reach that conclusion. So let’s look at another one. In this study from Germany, vegetarians were found to have higher rates of depression, anxiety, hypochondria and eating disorders.
Now, if we wanted to be careful, we’d have to consider all kinds of possible explanations. It could be that people who are sick or depressed or have an eating disorder are more likely to try a vegetarian diet, hoping for a dietary cure. It could be that more vegetarians are obsessed with being thin, which makes them more likely to semi-starve themselves, which in turns leads to poor health and depression. Eating or not eating meat may have nothing to do with it, at least not directly.
But I’m not in the mood to be careful. I more in the mood to channel the spirits of Campbell, Bernard, McDougall, and the other great vegan zealots. So I’ll just declare that according to the recent research, a vegetarian diet will make you sick and crazy.
Heh-heh-heh … like I said, that was kind of fun.