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Meat vs veg: how does a vegetarian diet stack up?

Ethical and environmental considerations are often the prompt for adopting a meat-free diet. But better health may also push some towards vegetarianism, with a new study showing vegetarians have a lower…

Vegetarians have a lower risk of some chronic diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease and diabetes. Image from shutterstock.com

Ethical and environmental considerations are often the prompt for adopting a meat-free diet. But better health may also push some towards vegetarianism, with a new study showing vegetarians have a lower risk of premature death than their meat-eating counterparts.

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study of more than 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists placed the participants into five groups: non-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian (includes seafood), lacto-ovo-vegetarian (includes dairy and egg products) and vegans.

Overall, the authors found a 12% reduction in premature death for the vegetarian groups, over a period of just under six years. The benefit was more pronounced for men, though the reason for this difference is not clear.

The researchers also reported the vegetarian groups were likely to be older, married, highly educated and tended to exercise more.

But there are a number of shortfalls to this study. The participants were only asked about their diets in an initial survey, so dietary patterns may have changed over time. It’s also possible that some people in the vegetarian groups, including vegans, may have consumed some animal foods such as eggs, dairy, fish and meat.

Are vegetarians really healthier?

The JAMA study builds on a growing body of evidence that shows vegetarians have a lower risk of some chronic diseases such as hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease and diabetes.

This may be because vegetarian diets are usually higher in fibre, antioxidants, and phytochemicals (natural compounds found in fruit and vegetables). They also tend to be lower in their content of animal fat, though some plant oils such as coconut oil and palm oil do contain saturated fats.

Many studies report that vegetarians are healthier than non-vegetarians because they have healthier lifestyles: they tend not to smoke, exclude or limit alcohol consumption, are more physically active and they usually have lower body mass index (BMI). But many of these have focused on specific groups such as Seventh-day Adventists, who tend to minimise behaviours which increase the risk of chronic disease.

Image from shutterstock.com

Studies investigating the health and lifestyle of vegetarians and non-vegetarians in the wider community have also reported health benefits of a vegetarian diet.

The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition, or EPIC study – which investigates the relationships between diet, cancer and other chronic diseases in more than half a million European participants – found vegetarians tended to be healthier than meat eaters.

In March, for example, the UK arm of the EPIC study reported the risk of ischemic heart disease was 32% lower among the vegetarians. This was based on a study of 44,561 men and women over 11.6 years. Importantly, the researchers said the findings were not influenced by the participants' gender, age, BMI or smoking status.

Not all vegetarian diets are equal

Concerns have traditionally been raised about the health effects of severely restricting the consumption of foods of animal origin, especially meat. It was thought these diets may not be nutritionally adequate and therefore could impact on growth and development, especially among children and teenagers.

There is a risk that some vegetarian diets may not contain sufficient amounts of some nutrients required for optimal health, especially the more restrictive diets in which iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and some of the omega 3 fats are more likely to be low. But with careful planning, vegetarians can meet all their nutritional needs.

So, how much is enough?

The Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand recently increased the recommended daily intake of iron and zinc for vegetarians, to 80% more iron and 50% more zinc than the current recommendations for non-vegetarians. This is because vegetarian diets have higher levels of constituents such as phytate, which can affect absorption of these minerals from the diet.

For iron, the recommended intake for vegetarians is 32 milligrams (mg) a day for women and 14 mg/day for men. This compares with 18mg/day for non-vegetarian women and 8mg/day for non-vegetarian men. Vegetarian sources of iron include fortified breakfast cereals, breads and soy drinks, firm tofu, legumes, nuts, seeds and brown rice.

Vegetarian diets are usually higher in fibre and antioxidants. Image from shutterstock.com

Likewise for zinc, the recommended daily intake for vegetarians is 12 mg/day for women and 21 mg/day for men, compared with 8mg/day for non-vegetarian women and 14mg/day for non-vegetarian men. Good sources of zinc include whole-grain breads and cereals, rolled oats, nuts, seeds, legumes, brown rice and soy products.

The nutritional needs may be increased during growth and development and also during pregnancy and lactation. And in some cases, dietary supplements may be required.

Regardless of whether you follow a vegetarian diet, Australia’s dietary guidelines recommend you consume a wide variety of foods each day, including plenty of vegetables, whole-grain foods (including legumes/beans, nuts and seeds) and low-fat dairy products.

And if you do eat meat, opt for lean varieties.

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  1. Liam Hanlon

    Student

    I have been vegetarian for over 4 years now...still eat eggs and occasionally cheese...I feel a lot healthier for it and find I get sick a lot less since changing my diet. It may not be the diet but either way vegetarianism seems to be the factor thats changed a lot of things including weight, health and most importantly...my cooking abilities.

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  2. Tyson Adams

    Scientist and author

    "The researchers also reported the vegetarian groups were likely to be older, married, highly educated and tended to exercise more."

    Exercise is a huge factor in any dietary study, so all I take away is eat healthy and exercise and you'll be good.

    I've seen a lot of work that suggests leafy/fibrous vegetables and fruit are really important in any diet, regardless of key protein and carb sources. I'm pretty sure this is primarily dietary fibre, but there are plenty of other factors others might know more about.

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  3. Sharon Hutchings

    logged in via Twitter

    I chose to stop eating meat 18 years ago after meeting my now husband who had been vego for several years. We both went vegan 6 years later. Best decision of our lives.

    It's important to note that I don't consider myself a 'health nut' as I enjoy wine, chocolate and chips on a regular basis, and have become a tad too busy and lazy for a regular exercise regime!

    Two fantastic healthy pregnancies during my vegan years, with absolutely no deficiencies or problems, produced our boys who are now…

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  4. David Poynter

    Medical Scientist

    Beyond 6,000 years ago our ancestors were hunters and gatherers. Communal living based around farming hadn't yet taken over. Even today our genetics are predisposed to cope with a paleolithic diet based around protein and fat rich animal flesh, fish and shell fish. We are not equipped to deal with a vegan diet.
    It is possible to find "committed" meat eaters and I think you'd find they can live long and healthy lives.

    I would argue that meat consumption, including animal fat can be healthy. However…

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    1. Aden Date

      Service Learning Coordinator at University of Western Australia

      In reply to David Poynter

      I heard it put well once that we don't need milk, we need calcium and amino acids. We don't need chicken, we need protein. We don't need beef, we need iron.

      We don't need meat, but rather the nutrition it provides. It would be suicidal to go vegetarian in a hunter-gatherer society, but in our advanced liberal economies, it is very possible to eat a full and nutritious vegetarian diet.

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    2. Simon Porteous

      Chiropractor

      In reply to David Poynter

      I'd say 1 billion lean people in asia eating white rice supplemented with fruits, vegetables and occasional meat would disagree David.

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    3. Simon Porteous

      Chiropractor

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Tyson: What is it in milk and eggs that you cant get on a whole foods plant based diet? (other that cholesterol, high doses of saturated fat, carcinogenic animal protein, heterocyclic amines, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, carnitine, choline, bacterial toxins etc)

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    4. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Simon Porteous

      You mean aside from B12?

      Also, nice emotive language use there. Now get emotive about all the plant based toxins you neglected to mention.

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    5. Simon Porteous

      Chiropractor

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      You're right, Vitamin B12 although I've never taken a B12 supplement, and my last blood test showed no deficiency, plus the only clinically diagnosed deficiency I have seen in practice was in someone eating a meat based diet, so meat eaters get B12 deficiencies too.

      Now exactly how big a problem are these plant based toxins? (I assume we aren't taking about cannabis, heroine and alcohol.)

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    6. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Simon Porteous

      "In practice?" So people who give people a massage for a living are extensively trained in and perform blood analysis as well? Colour me skeptical.

      First you pretend that there isn't any deficiencies, then when I call you on the most common and well known deficiency, you contribute a personal anecdote. Then you pretend that plants don't have any toxins.

      Well, here is the evidence for my claims:
      B12 deficiency very common in vegans, 92% in this study (11% in normal diets): http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/78/1/131.abstract

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    7. Simon Porteous

      Chiropractor

      In reply to Tyson Adams

      Nice insult, never heard that before, the B12 deficiency was diagnosed by the patients GP, but for the record chiropractors are trained to read blood test results at university.

      I'm not trying to pretend that b12 deficiencies dont exist. And I didn't ask if plant toxins exist, I asked how big a problem they are.

      Now taking a B12 supplement is easy and low risk so what is there in dairy and eggs that a whole food plant based diet is deficient in. Or to put it another way, why would someone eat dairy and eggs with all the saturated fat, animal protein, carcinogenic compounds and bacterial toxins to get my b12 when a supplement can do the same without the risks.

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    8. Tyson Adams

      Scientist and author

      In reply to Simon Porteous

      And now you try to shift the goalposts.

      And yes, I was insulting your profession, because your profession currently supports homeopathy, anti-vaccination zealotry, etc, and isn't based on scientific principles. http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/index.php/category/chiropractic/

      And if you read the B12 studies you would have noticed that many of the subjects were already supplementing with B12. Yet, look at those results for people who ate normally, 50-80% decrease in deficiency rate. Clearly…

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    9. Karen Tough

      equine learning facilitator with a passion for natural farming & nutrition.

      In reply to Simon Porteous

      B12 in form of a swallowed supplement is very hard to absorb - hence the need for B12 jabs from your GP if you are deficient. Most of our B12 should be made in the gut, rather than sourced from food. Antibiotics play a role in turning this process off by killing off our beneficial bacteria, as does a diet low in trace minerals. My sister now has to have regular blood transfusions, & her daughter (15 yrs) is already needing the jabs !! Both on a "crap food" diet......:(

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  5. ernest malley

    farmer

    Interesting the way certain subjects bring out the foam flecked irrationalists - because they know they are on a loser but have invested too much psychic capital to acknowledge their idiocy.
    Religion, carnivore cretinism, anti-science (in sooo many areas), even sexuality.
    As Samuel Clements wrote, "Faith is what is needed to believe something you know is untrue".
    FTR, I haven't eaten flesh, fish, fowl or eggs for almost 50 years, though have raised, slaughtered & butchered all of the above for fools who wanted to sink in their feeble fangs* and dig their graves with a knife & fork.
    * Dentition & the length of the human alimentary canal alone demonstrate the unsuitability of more than a morsel of dead animal going down the gullet.

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  6. Citizen SG

    Citizen

    You know I find this whole thing so disengenuous.
    yes - living on a vegetarian diet is possible and the studies above in this cohort show that it can be a healthier diet. It's also possible to have a low red meat/low saturated fat diet with a high proportion of vegetables and have a healthy diet. because haealth and wellness is not just based upon intake.

    Most of the comments haere are about motivation. because you area vegetarian for moral or aesthetic reasons is not a reason for others to follow this diet. Because you a meat eater is not a reason that vegetarianism is contrived and insufficient.

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  7. Paul Francis

    Subversive

    I eat fish, I eat chicken, I eat red meat, I eat vegetables and fruit (for the record - from an ethics standpoint, we raise nearly all our own meat or buy some organic, free range...)
    Do I eat anything to excess? No. A VARIED diet consisting of all of the above combined with exercise will allow you to lead a healthy and fulfilling life.
    People on both sides of this fence will argue until blue in the face that their opinion (backed up by various "facts" of course) is the smarter healthier alternative…

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  8. Kenneth Mazzarol
    Kenneth Mazzarol is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired Auto Engineer and teacher

    Never mind the affect on the human body, fruit, vegs or nuts do not fart or rip up our fragile top soil with cloven hooves. So from that aspect let's keep a few cows, sheep and chooks for pets rather then as a major food source. If something or someone has to suffer, let it not be our environment.

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    1. Karen Tough

      equine learning facilitator with a passion for natural farming & nutrition.

      In reply to Kenneth Mazzarol

      Have you seen latest studies out of Africa regarding land regeneration ? Carried out over last 30 years - animals are crucial to the process.- when they removed the animals the land degenerated further. Once again the answer is balance. There is also a big difference in 'emissions" if animals are fed a species appropriate diet i.e no grain for cows.

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  9. Karen Tough

    equine learning facilitator with a passion for natural farming & nutrition.

    I would like a chemical free source of food , veges grown on live, healthy soils & my meat fed appropriately. I think industrial farming is the biggest obstacle to a healthy diet. Was lucky enough to see presentation by Maarten Stapper at Appleby DPI couple weeks ago & talk to some of his clients - they are a happy bunch !!

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    1. Paul Francis

      Subversive

      In reply to Karen Tough

      Very good point Karen. From health, ethical and environmental standpoints industrial farming is a problem.
      Consumers have been trained to think large amounts of cheap meat is a good thing, when actually, it's the opposite.
      Eating less meat, produced using more responsible practices (both ethically and environmentally), is far more sustainable & better for you.

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  10. Liam O'Dea

    Principal at Livestock

    I'm a grass farmer. Like most farmers in Australia.
    Only a small part of Australia is suitable for sustainable cropping of any kind. For the rest, either the rainfall is inadequate and/or the soil is infertile.
    The grass I grow is indigestible for humans. So I convert it to high quality protein, commonly called meat, and so I feed hundreds of people. who would not be able to eat my grass.
    Whether my meat is the best possible food for humans I can't say, but it is in demand and appears to meet the needs of many people.
    For most of the world, this argument is academic. They eat what they can get.
    Can we really afford to exclude meat from our diet?
    Liam O'Dea

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    1. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Liam O'Dea

      No we can't, and since about half the world's land is semiarid and unsuitable for ploughing we would waste a vast resource if we couldn't eat meat. We hardly have that luxury.
      The major issue with cattle raising is the intensive rearing on grains which are not a natural food for them except in small amounts.
      Tests that find red meat unhealthy may well be correct but they are usually testing unhealthy grain fed, hormone enriched animals. We have 10,000 generations of red meat eating and have evolved to consume it. We have maybe 2 generations of modern methods and are unlikely to have evolved to benefit from it.
      We can't afford cheap fast food. It's way too expensive.

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  11. Paul Frost

    Program Officer at SA Government

    Hmmm, lets see... I have canines to hold and tear apart denser food items such as... I dunno.... meat maybe and I have enzymes in my stomach that are capable of breaking down the proteins in meat. So I'm thinking that humans are actually designed to eat meat - Do we eat too much meat ... quite possibly but from where I'm sitting humans are supposed to eat the stuff..

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  12. Tom Hennessy

    Retired

    The iron hypothesis disputes the need for iron fortification.
    "The addition of a variety of non-chelated forms of iron to milled grains and cereals may be the most serious mistake in the history of human nutrition".

    "The iron hypothesis states that the reason premenopausal women have lower rates of heart disease than postmenopausal women and men is because they have less iron stored in their bodies."

    http://www.hearthealthywomen.org/am-i-at-risk/iron-levels/iron-levels.html

    Fish and other…

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    1. Tom Hennessy

      Retired

      In reply to Tom Hennessy

      Another example of low iron preventing a disease. Sickle Cell.
      “Overt iron deficiency lowers the MCHC-S and thereby decreases the sickling tendency and the severity of hemolysis. The clinical improvement in SCA following the induction of iron deficient erythropoiesis by repeated phlebotomies or by erythrocytapheresis has been reported.”

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  13. Chris Saunders

    retired

    Dear Surinder,
    Diet is a very important subject and the pros and cons of diet become for the food preparer a difficult area besieged by the demands and different thinking of individual family members. So what is your article saying exactly? The criticism of vegetarianism that it can lead to insufficient quantities of iron, vitamin B12, magnesium, calcium and zinc being absorbed is not valid? That a vegetarian/vegan diet being a high-carb diet does not lead to putting on weight or higher blood sugar? That frequent consumption of dairy and eggs or modern western processed soy and gluten do in fact provide you with the necessary spectrum of amino acids? That the modern vegetarian/vegan diet does not require supplements? That children on a vegetarian diet are eating enough fat to meet their growing needs? Or, that research undertaken by a religiously and food industry vested interest can be completely trusted not to have a favoured result at the beginning of research?

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  14. Rosemary Stanton

    Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at UNSW Australia

    Arguments about a vegan diet lacking vitamin B12 are correct but the current idea that the Recommended Dietary Intake for iron for vegetarians should be increased to such high levels is based on data now known to be incorrect.

    The diet of people living in poverty may lack iron - and many other nutrients, but for those with access to a range of foods, absorption of iron from plant foods increases according to need. For example, during pregnancy, absorption of non-haem iron (which is the only kind…

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    1. alfred venison

      records manager (public sector)

      In reply to Rosemary Stanton

      " Indeed, some of the 'vegetarians' in the current study consumed meat or fish occasionally. "

      i appreciate your quotation marks - implying "so-called" - around the word vegetarian there.

      if they consume meat or fish or fowl, even occasionally, then they are not vegetarians. honestly, why is it so hard to mean what we say and say what we mean these days?

      people who drink alcohol occasionally are not non-drinkers.

      people who smoke tobacco occasionally are not non-smokers.

      i have not eaten meat since 1971, no exceptions. that is vegetarian. a. v.

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    2. Chris Saunders

      retired

      In reply to Rosemary Stanton

      Thanks for the scientific american reference to paleo, just read it now. It still leaves me puzzled why this article is detailing the benefits of a vegetarian diet. Diet has historically been determined by food availability. This has meant that mankind can adapt to even the most atrocious diets. We certainly have more choice of foodstuffs now, but what is preferred by one person can be a pure misery to another, speaking both health and enjoyment wise. I for one am more interested in what people need to eat and what they should perhaps avoid according to age and sex and their corresponding differing bodily needs and I certainly don't mean the one size fits all of the public health food pyramid. And this is the need that food faddist are able to feed upon to nutritionist's dismay.

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  15. Edward John Fearn

    Hypnotherapist and Naturopath

    The following study may be of some interest, it touches on the relationship between red meat consumption and higher rates of atherosclerosis. It seems that Intestinal microbiota could in fact contribute to the link between red meat consumption and CVD risk
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23563705

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  16. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email @tpg.com.au

    Not only do we have a moral obligation to reduce our meat consumption, we also have an ethical one. Food animals are massive emitters of GHGs and these animals have degraded fragile ecosystems worldwide, including in Australia and the Amazon forests – the “lungs of the world.” Extensive cattle ranching is the number one culprit of deforestation in virtually every Amazon country, and it accounts for 80% of current deforestation.

    There are around five times more sheep and cattle in Australia than…

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    1. Liam O'Dea

      Principal at Livestock

      In reply to Shirley Birney

      Shirley, Thank for your contribution to this discussion. I agree with much of what you say, but it's not all black and white. I don't think we have a moral or ethical obligation to reduce our meat consumption.
      I read, and sometimes contribute, to this site so a s to learn from others. I try to not confront.
      I farm grass and trees. While the grass and trees are useful to thousands of roos and wallabies, some bandicootes, and a few koalas, nobody will pay me one cent to do that. I could sell out…

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    2. John Doyle

      architect

      In reply to Liam O'Dea

      well said. I agree.
      I have also said we cannot lock away huge areas of the earth's surface from producing useful food. It's certainly not the most efficient way of farming but for what it does it's as good as can be expected. If each year improves the land then it negates any moral obligation to reduce meat production. Nature does it already, eat or be eaten. Is that immoral?

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  17. John Newton

    Author Journalist

    I’m neither vegetarian nor carnivore. I’m an omnivore, lFrom the evidence it’s safe to say that from earliest times we have been omnivores. The physiological proof of this is that our stomach produces hydrochloric acid, which activates protein splitting enzymes, something not found in herbivores. The human pancreas manufactures a full range of digestive enzymes to handle a wide range of foods, both animal and vegetable. Our intestines are not as long as those of herbivores, but are longer than…

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  18. Shirley Birney

    logged in via email @tpg.com.au

    Gastric secretion of hydrochloric acid is unique to vertebrates and is almost ubiquitous in all fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. An example is a ruminant’s fourth stomach (the abomasum) - a 'secretory stomach' which means that cells in the abomasum wall produces enzymes and hydrochloric acid which hydrolyse proteins in the food. (A single cow can produce up to 280 litres of methane a day).

    I am aware that about 3% of a frugivorous primate’s diet consists of insects and occasional…

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