On Veg Alone

Are there really health benefits to a vegetarian lifestyle?



People become vegetarians for as many reasons as there are meat substitutes in the freezer aisle at Trader Joe’s. In a Harris Interactive survey conducted in 2006 for the Vegetarian Resource Group (VRG), 2.3 percent of respondents said they never eat meat, fish, other seafood, or poultry. This works out to about five million Americans. But a closer look at the numbers suggests some subtle differences between age groups. About 5 percent of people aged 18 to 24, for example, claimed not to eat meat, compared with 9 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds who claimed to be vegetarians. The VRG says that 11 percent of girls aged 13 to 15 years are vegetarians, a percentage that rings true around Westchester County, based on what parents and girls themselves report.

Just as people adopt vegetarianism for a variety of reasons, they practice it in a variety of ways. The pollsters suspect that between 30 percent and 50 percent of people who call themselves vegetarians actually are vegans because, in addition to avoiding red meat, fish, and poultry, they also eschew dairy, eggs, and honey­—in other words, no animal products whatsoever. Then there are the casual vegetarians, flexitarians, or occasional vegetarians, who actually eat some poultry and/or fish, but red meat sparingly or not at all. Some poll results suggest that at least 10 percent of Americans put themselves in this category.

Overall, it looks like the number of vegetarians and vegans has remained fairly stable in recent years. According to VRG’s 2006 poll (the most recent available), 6.7 percent of American adults never eat red meat, and 2.3 percent never eat meat, poultry, fish, or seafood. Back in 1997, 1 percent of respondents to a similar poll reported being vegetarians, while 5 percent said they never ate red meat. But a trip down the aisles in any mainstream supermarket makes it clear that consumer interest in vegetarian products—everything from vegetable lasagna to soy products to vegetarian “hot dogs” and vegetarian “turkey” is red-hot. Local Stop & Shop stores recently have been renovated with the addition of entire aisles filled with vegetarian offerings. The VRG says that up to 40 percent of consumers are looking for vegetarian products.

While some pursue a vegetarian diet on moral grounds, many more espouse its presumed health benefits. But does subtracting meat from one’s dietary equation really add up to a healthy lifestyle? To find out, we tackled some of the key notions in vegetarian dogma.

Are Vegetarians Healthier Than Non-Vegetarians?

Yes, experts say, but not necessarily because of their diets. Writing after the Third International Congress on Vegetarian Nutrition (ICVN) back in 1999, Walter C. Willett, MD, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, noted that vegetarians living in affluent areas (much of Westchester qualifies) have unusually good health, with less cardiovascular disease, less cancer, and lower death rates than non-vegetarians.

“Plenty of studies over a great many years indicate that vegetarians are healthier than the general population,” reports Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and author of What to Eat (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006.

But why? Because, experts point out, vegetarians tend to have a healthier lifestyle. They tend not to smoke. They tend to be physically active. And they consume no red meat, which is high in saturated fat (not something heart doctors applaud). “People who are conscious of health don’t binge-drink or overeat,” says Nestle. “And people who don’t eat much meat don’t eat much junk food, either.”

So if vegetarians are often healthier than meat eaters, just how much of the benefit can be attributed to their meatless diets versus their other healthy choices? We don’t know—yet. There’s still another factor to consider: genes.

“The population of India is largely vegetarian,” says Louis J. Aronne, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Weill-Cornell Medical College and director of the comprehensive weight control program at the Westchester Medical Group in Purchase. “But they have more diabetes than any country in the world in part because of a strong genetic predisposition.”

Are Vegetarian Diets Healthier Than Conventional Diets?

Not necessarily. A diet that excludes animal protein also can be loaded with starch, sugar, and fat. “Brownies are vegetarian,”
notes Dr. Aronne, who emphasizes that, while a vegetarian diet has potential health benefits, people who exclude meat from their diets often do things that mitigate the potential benefits of a meat-free diet, like indulging in more refined carbohydrates and fats.

Besides brownies, other foods that meet vegetarian criteria include cheese pizza, macaroni and cheese, bagels and cream cheese, chips and dips, cookies, pies, cakes, cannoli, ice cream, baked ziti, fried zucchini, crackers, calzones, and sweetened cereals. You get the idea.

While she hasn’t eaten red meat or chicken in 30 years, Philomena Ferrara of Pound Ridge still works hard to keep her diet healthy. “I tend to go down that cheese road,” she says, noting that she had borderline high cholesterol a few years ago but refused to go on cholesterol-lowering medication. Consultation with a nutritionist led her to moderate her consumption of cheese instead. Ferrara loves seafood and eats plenty of it with lots of veggies. Ferrara made an ostensibly healthy choice, because research shows that being a vegetarian correlates to improvements in cardiovascular health. One example is a study published in the American Journal of Cardiology in February 2006 that studied the effects of long-term vegetarian diets on healthy postmenopausal women. Compared to a group of non-vegetarian women, the vegetarians had lower blood pressure and lower levels of total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, triglycerides, and fasting blood sugar.

Is Meat Bad for You?

Some vegetarians take it as an article of faith that meat is intrinsically unhealthy. Not exactly true, says Nestle. “It’s a matter of degree,” she says. “For people in developing countries without much in the way of food resources, adding meat greatly improves nutrient intake. Populations like those in Asia, who traditionally have diets in which meat is used almost as a condiment, tend to be very healthy. There is a big difference between having a few shreds of meat on a meal of grains and vegetables and having a twenty-three-ounce steak.”
In small amounts, meat takes care of several possible nutritional deficiencies, notably vitamin B12, which is essential to the health of nerve cells and red blood cells and needed for the manufacture of DNA, but also contains large amounts of saturated fat. People whose diets have a high saturated-fat content are at higher risk of cardiovascular disease because saturated fats increase blood cholesterol levels, which then can contribute to plaque buildup in the arteries, according to the American Heart Association and the National Library of Medicine. “Before we had statins, back in the 1980s, the big steakhouses in New York City almost went under,” says Dr. Aronne. “Statins have changed everything,” he says about these drugs, which prevent the liver from making excessive amounts of cholesterol. Statins essentially allow more people to keep eating red meat rather than giving it up to reduce their risk of heart disease—although several studies have linked regular consumption of red meat to other health concerns, such as cancer, hypertension, and even arthritis.

It’s also becoming clearer that not all meats are created equal. There’s a growing consensus that meat can be a more healthful product if cattle are fed on grass instead of corn or other grain. Until World War II, cattle ate primarily grass. But they grow bigger faster when they eat grain, and you can guess how that went in the age of industrialized ranching. Unless it’s labeled otherwise, the beef in your grocery store comes from grain-fed animals. But beef from grass-fed cattle has about half the saturated fat of meat from grain-fed cattle. Grass-fed cattle meat also has a higher content of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin E, and conjugated linoleic acid, a healthy fat that may ward off cancer. Eatwild.com, a website of sources of grass-fed food and facts, can direct you to sources for grass-fed beef in New York (eatwild.com/products/newyork.html).

A little meat makes some people feel better. Lucy Robinson of Manhattan knows this better than most. While still in her teens, she cut all animal products—including poultry, fish, and eggs—out of her diet. Then, after five years on that food regimen, the Fordham University student and Manhattan Pilates instructor found herself lethargic—and craving meat. “I decided to start incorporating it back in my diet slowly,” she says. “Now I eat white meat once or twice a month and fish several times a week. I don’t deny myself, and I don’t settle for ‘tofurky’”—that is, tofu products manufactured to resemble turkey and other meats. “I felt so much better. And I actually lost weight because I wasn’t eating so many fatty foods like peanut butter.”

Let’s face it: protein and fats are satisfying. Nina Planck, author of Real Food: What to Eat and Why, had been a vegetarian for years and ran six miles every day—but was still overweight from, she says, her carb-heavy diet—when nine years ago she shifted toward fish and poultry.

“I was astonished at how quickly I lost twenty-five pounds when I made that dietary change,” says Planck, who, in addition to being an author, is also a farmers’ market entrepreneur. Although she can’t completely explain how or why this dietary change caused her to lose so much weight, Planck has theories. “It’s just not possible for me to binge on protein and fat unless it’s attached to a refined carbohydrate. We don’t keep eating and eating chicken breasts or spoons of olive oil.” Nonetheless, the amount of animal protein she added to her diet was relatively small, “and I’m still not a huge red-meat eater,” she says.

“There are several reasons that people on vegetarian diets can feel tired,” says Dr. Aronne. “Food has thousands of nutrients that we haven’t discovered. Animal protein undoubtedly has things in it that make us feel better and more energetic. We may not necessarily need these compounds to live, though.” Dr. Aronne adds that people on vegetarian diets tend to eat less protein and more carbohydrates and fat. “And that combination contributes to insulin resistance, making people feel drained.” He also says that recent research shows that increasing the protein content of one’s diet (regardless of its source) makes it easier to lose weight. “Extra protein may increase a person’s metabolic rate by as much as ten percent,” he says.

Are We Born to Be Vegetarians?

“I doubt that,” says Nestle. “Physiologically, humans are omnivores and substantial evidence indicates that we were hunter-gatherers in Paleolithic times.”

“We evolved for a mixed diet,” Dr. Aronne agrees. “We did not evolve for bagels, muffins, and Danish.” He says that because food used to rot very easily in the days before refrigeration, humans needed to be able to eat a variety of items and have strong stomachs to eat whatever was available. “If the grain had vermin and the meat stank, the only people who didn’t starve to death were those with a strong drive to eat. Our systems evolved for dealing with shortages and facing adversity. Now we almost have too much good, fresh food available.”

S. Jay Olshansky, a respected researcher on aging and a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago writes in his book, The Quest for Immortality: “Carnivores have canines for tearing meat, and herbivores have molars for grinding up plant matter. The fact that we humans possess all of these characteristics indicates that we are omnivores.”

After years of avoiding all animal protein, many vegetarians have found themselves in the “flexitarian” category. Moosewood’s Mollie Katzen, of Berkeley, California, explains: “Just as there was no big event involved in my becoming a vegetarian, there was no official return to meat for me either,” she says. “I started adding some of it back in because the meat that became available was much better and had been more cleanly and sustainably raised. And I have found that, as I get older, I need more sources of pure animal protein in my diet. My plate is still about eighty-five percent vegetables and whole grains, but small amounts of good-quality meat, poultry, and fish often round it out.”

A group calling themselves ethicurians have formed around the concept of eating meat only from animals that have been raised ethically. At their website, ethicurean.com, they define an ethicurean as “someone who seeks out tasty things that are also sustainable, organic, local, and/or ethical — SOLE food, for short.” Bonnie Powell, a founder of the ethicurean movement, had an abrupt transition back to meat. “I started with a Niman Ranch pastrami sandwich at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, California, on Christmas day,” she says. “It was totally unplanned.” She never looked back, but the animal products she eats today must meet a high standard. “I don’t eat mystery meat. I get meat from local farms, where I can meet the farmers and see their operations. As allowed by weather, animals should have ample time outside and not be confined. They are fed a natural diet and don’t undergo mutilations such as beak-trimming, tail-docking, or tooth-clipping.”

Sandra Pianin, also an ex-vegetarian, wishes she still could adhere to an all-vegetable diet. “I liked it,” she says, “but I got severely anemic. Iron pills do terrible things to your stomach, so I had to start back on a little meat. But I still prefer vegetarian meals that are well prepared.”

While it’s challenging enough for adult vegetarians to make the proper dietary choices, Dr. Aronne is alarmed by the kind of vegetarianism he sees practiced primarily by poorly informed teenage girls. “They eat toast with butter and jam for breakfast, a cheese sandwich for lunch, and pasta with tomato sauce for dinner,” says Dr. Aronne. “This is a problem because it’s totally unbalanced. Where are the vegetables? Starch is not a vegetable. If you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables!” Several studies, including one published in the New England Journal of Medicine in December 2001, have found evidence that teenage girls who become vegetarians are at higher risk than others of having or developing eating disorders and engaging in unsafe weight control behaviors. In a study of young Australian women, which included more than 9,000 participants, vegetarians and semi-vegetarians reported more depression than non-vegetarians (22 percent vs. 15 percent), along with low iron levels and menstrual difficulties.

Nina Planck, who adopted vegetarianism years ago because she thought it was virtuous, has had second thoughts. “Virtuous diets are a dangerous psychology in themselves,” she says. “Eat till you feel right. It should all taste good. I’m beyond eating certain foods only because they’re good for me. We should be careful not to make health our new god. I’m in the virtuous diet business myself,” she says, “but I’ve changed my mind about what’s virtuous.”

Mary Desmond Pinkowish is a freelance writer in Larchmont. She grew up in Boston, known as the “home of the bean and the cod,” so she eats plenty of fish and legumes—along with quite a bit of poultry and a bit of red meat.