Vegetarians, at least in my view, have it pretty bad. I mean, no bacon? And a new study out of Austria says that vegetarians of all stripes are saddled with lower quality of life. While the study showed the Body Mass Index (BMI) increases as the amount of animal fat consumed increased which falls in line with previous studies, there was some distressing news, too. There is statistically significant evidence that those following a vegan diets or vegetarian diets that include fish and/or eggs and milk suffer from higher levels of allergies (p=0.000), mental illness (p=0.036), and self-report worse health (p=0.000) and higher numbers of chronic conditions (p=0.000) compared to carnivorous counterparts of the same age, sex, and socioeconomic status.
Now, I don’t let me mislead you: there were limitations to the study–not the least of these is that there was no nutrient analysis, food tracking, or indication of portion sizes. As an observational study, no causation can be established. This is all very important when looking at how food impacts health and when interpreting studies.
However, as someone interested in traditional foods and diets, this research intrigues me. There are no known traditional vegan diets–even largely vegetarian cultures prize animal products, like ghee in India. While I understand the principles behind vegan diets and in no way mean to be an Atkins’ apologist, I can’t help but worry that vegans are missing something–like the types of omega-3 fatty acids found only in fish or certain B vitamins. I know that supplements and alternatives exist, but the body metabolizes supplements differently than food. A famous example is based on beta-carotene: studies showed that beta-carotene helped decrease the incidence of cancer in smokers, so several experiments were done involving beta-carotene dosing (and they weren’t eating carrots). The results showed that the incidence of cancer in the experimental group increased and that was the end of at least one study.
The explanation that I find most compelling is that we simply don’t know enough about food, nutrients, and the interplay with our bodies to divorce a nutrient from the food it comes from. By eating a diverse diet of real, traditional foods, you can supply your body with all the nutrients it needs and even make room for some treats of the savory and sweet varieties. And that honestly sounds easier than denying bacon.