Don't go vegetarian or vegan for health benefits

Jeff Nelson, | 06/06/13

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Read More: adventist health, EPIC, study, vegan, vegetarian

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Do you like questionable studies on vegetarians?

If so, it's your lucky day!  In a new analysis from Seventh Day Adventist researchers, results were published of a 6 year diet study that followed 70,000 people.  And the big news, according to the study, is that male vegetarians have a 12% lower chance of dying than meat-eaters.

Wow!  Impressive!

There's just one problem: to get that claim, the Adventist researchers had to call people "vegetarian" who actually eat fish ("fish-eaters") or who actually eat meat from time to time ("semi-vegetarians").

When you take the fish-eaters and meat-eaters out of the study's "vegetarian" group and put them in the "non-vegetarian" group where they belong, the "12% lower chance of dying" thing goes away.

Vegetarians and Vegans Don't Live Longer

What we see is that, when the definition of "vegetarian" in the Adventist study is limited people who are actually vegetarian, we get pretty much the same findings as the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study of vegetarians from a few years ago -- that there is no significant difference in death rates between (actual) vegetarians and meat-eaters/fish-eaters.
But there is good news, and probably the most important take-home lesson is this: these studies were done on people eating average vegetarian and vegan diets. 

These are not studies on people eating a health-promoting plant-based diet, like those recommended by McDougall, Ornish, Esselstyn, Barnard, Pritikin*, Fuhrman, etc.  We do know that these health-promoting plant-based diets have been shown in the scientific literature to produce dramatic disease prevention, reversal, and extension of life.

So the choice is clear: you can adopt a generic vegetarian or vegan diet, and live as long as meat-eaters but no longer…or you can follow the health-promoting plant-based diets recommended by McDougall, Ornish, Esselstyn, Barnard, Pritikin, or Fuhrman, etc. -- and dramatically increase your health and prevent life-shortening disease.

Reductionist Nonsense

Another thing this study reminds me about -- there are a number of vegetarian websites which tout the health benefits of vegetarian or vegan diets.  They often cite research from McDougall, Barnard, Esselstyn, Pritikin, etc., and use such studies to promote the "vegetarian diet" or the "vegan diet" as healthy.  

Beware of these outlets.

Someone who attributes to the "vegan diet" the benefits which were obtained from Pritikin or Ornish diet research -- is seriously misleading the public.  

Experts who try to convince their audience that the "vegetarian diet" or the "vegan diet" can produce this or that health benefit, and then cite research on the diet programs of Esselstyn, Pritikin, PCRM or McDougall to back that claim -- are doing a disservice to the public (often for noble motives having to do with an animal agenda, but not health).

What you often see from such outlets is a mishmash of "facts" and conclusions that are misleading at best, useless at worst.  

For example, I've seen the experts from such outlets one day spotlight that research that shows a "vegan diet" can reverse heart disease or lower cancer risk or reverse obesity, and the experts cite McDougall or Ornish or Pritikin research.  The next day, they spotlight a study about the "benefits" of olive oil or supplements or a particular "superfood," and tell their readers these foods appear critical to good health.

What the these experts leave out is that if you add the olive oil, supplements or "superfoods" they claim are beneficial, you would be eating foods which are discouraged or specifically excluded from the diet programs they touted the day before, the ones proven to prevent heart disease and cancer, and reverse obesity.  Oops!

In other words, these experts don't really know what they're talking about.

Such sites are reductionistic in their approach to health, focusing on this nutrient, that herb, or some other superfood, always looking for the "latest nutrition information!"  As a result, they lack a cohesive and proven nutrition view, and their information is actually riddled with contradictions.  Most of these experts have little or no clinical experience, implementing a health-promoting vegetarian or vegan diet.

In fact, in his new book, "Whole: Rethinking The Science of Nutrition," author and venerated plant-based researcher, T. Colin Campbell PhD, makes this very point.  Dr. Campbell shows how this kind of reductionism, of trying to tie this nutrient from this food to this disease.... that this whole mentality of nutritional reductionism is to blame for the current health mess, and the deplorable level of conventional nutritional information. 

Campbell says that the reductionist mindset has caused the traditional “gold standard” of nutrition research to be to study one food and one chemical at a time in an attempt to determine its particular impact on the human body. These sorts of studies are helpful to food companies trying to prove there is something in milk or nuts or olive oil or some other food that is “good” for us, but they provide little insight into the complexity of what actually happens in our bodies or how chemicals in various foods contribute to our health. 

Campbell shows how a paradigm-change in the way we look at nutrition is desperately needed.  Researchers need to embrace the whole rather than trying to deconstruct health to this or that food.  And this is exactly what experts like McDougall, Ornish and the others have done.

And yet we still see these websites that promote vegetarianism embracing the same disastrous reductionist trend.  Some have become sort of veggie versions of the Dr. Oz Show, where something new is being touted every day or week as the latest greatest breaking science news, which often contradicts what was presented last week.  It's as if urgently touting the "latest" is merely a ploy to try to keep readers coming back.

It may be this mishmash approach in trying to promote a veggie agenda, that results in the kind of generic vegetarianism we see in the EPIC and Adventist groups.  Many in those groups probably believed eating a generic vegetarian diet could deliver a big boost to their life expectancy, but apparently it won't, according to these two large studies.

If you're looking to protect and improve your health, forget about "going veg."  Instead, learn and follow a health-promoting plant-based diet program of one of the experts I've mentioned -- which focus on the whole not the tiny pieces, and most of which just happen to minimize or exclude animal products (along with other types of unhealthy foods), and focus on a particular overall approach.  

Learn one of those programs, do it, stick to it, and avoid the Dr. Oz-style background nutrition noise about "the latest science!!"

Adventists Eat Healthier Than EPIC Eaters -- But You Can Do Much Better

Getting back to the Adventist diet study -- most of the "vegetarians" and "vegans" in that study appear to be like those in the EPIC study, based on the lack of health benefits.  That is, study subjects do not eat a particularly healthy diet, even if it was a vegetarian or vegan diet. 

The Adventist group, however, did eat more fiber, and a somewhat healthier diet than the EPIC.  From the Adventist study:  "The vegetarians in our study consume more fiber and vitamin C tthehan those of the EPIC- Oxford cohort: mean dietary fiber in EPIC-Oxford veg- and was 27.7 g/d in men and 26.4 g/d in women compared with 45.6 g/d in men and 47.3 g/d in women in AHS-2 vegans; mean vitamin C in EPIC-Oxford vegans was 125 mg/d in men and 143 mg/d in women compared with 224 mg/d in men and 250 mg/d in women in AHS-2 vegans."

But again, although the Adventist group has more of a health focus and were eating a somewhat healthier version of the veg diet than the EPIC group, very few of the people in either study were eating the kind of diet programs we advocate on VegSource.  Their lack of results in extending mortality may be representative of a generic vegetarian or vegan diet, but not a health-promoting plant-based diet.

It's interesting to note that in the Advetist study, while the lowest BMI was in the vegan group -- it was still 24.1, which is getting very close to being "overweight." Overweight is defined as a BMI of 25-29.9, a healthy weight is defined as BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 with advice to try to be on the lower end of the healthy range. The Adventist vegans were near the top, on average. 

For some years we used to occasionally go to an Adventist store to shop.  I was struck by the amount of high-fat, high calorie, salty fake meats, fake sausages, fake chicken and junky vegetarian food being sold there.  If the kind of food being marketed in this Adventist market was somehow representative of the vegetarians in their study, it's no wonder they didn't experience benefits in life expectancy.

Another key factor in reviewing data tables in the Adventist study is that those who follow a vegan/veg diet also follow a healthier overall lifestyle.  According to data in the Adventist study, a significantly larger portion of the vegetarian and vegan groups avoid smoking and alcohol consumption, more of them exercise more often and have lower BMIs -- than the meat-eater groups in the study.  And the vegetarians and vegans on the whole are more educated than the meat-eater groups.

One conclusion you could perhaps draw from the data tables is that people who care more about their health, and do not drink or smoke, and who exercise and have more education -- are more likely to become vegetarian or vegan.  It may be the people's focus on trying to be healthier, rather than the veg diet itself, that confers any modest benefits. 

But beyond that, these studies suggest you should not merely go vegetarian or vegan to try to extend your life. 

Instead, if you want significant health benefits, adopt a McDougall, Ornish, Esselstyn, Fuhrman, Barnard or Pritikin* diet, which are not simply about avoiding animal products, but are about avoiding unhealthy foods in general, and focusing on the healthiest ones.  These programs are consistent and coherent and take a "whole" approach, and produce solid benefits in the published research.


NOTE: An earlier version of this article used the term "therapeutic" to describe the health-promoting plant-based diets which have such promising results in the scientific literature. The term was used because of the great success these diets have reversing disease in seriously ill individuals. However, this is a diet for people who aren't sick in order to preserve and maintain health, hence the term in the aritlce was changed to reflect these diets are not just for therapy but for maintaining and promoting health in general.

*Pritikin Diet -- 

The references to "Pritikin diet" in this article refer to data from their older program, which was stricter or more limited in terms of recommended food. The older program provided very powerful research data in terms of health benefits. The older Pritikin diet in that research may differ from the current program.


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