In the United States there is a fairly common belief based on dubious research and media hype that vegetarian diets are healthier and protective against cancer. I would like to set that myth to rest, because to date, the studies have not been clear on this.
Let’s start with a close look at the popular 2005 book The China Study.
If you have read this book, you know that on the surface it appears to make quite a case against consuming animal protein. It asserts that higher animal protein intakes were clearly associated with increased risk of cancer.
First, it cites animal studies of the book’s author, US researcher Dr. T. Colin Campbell, which found that feeding casein (a protein from milk) to rodents gave them cancer. The author then reasoned that human research was needed, so he looked to China where he hypothesized that China’s lower rates of cancer could be due to their lower intake of animal protein.
There are a couple of problems with the whole premise. First, while China does have lower rates of some cancers, it has the highest rate of stomach cancer in the world!1 That fact is never discussed in the book.
Second, when you analyze the studies upon which the book was based, you find that the rates of cancer for meat eaters did increase, but only slightly. In fact, as one author who analyzed the China study data pointed out, animal protein increased rates of cancer only slightly and smoking did not increase rates of cancer at all.2
With these results not being definitive, and in some instances so contrary to other research, we need to compare them to the work of other researchers.
In doing so, we find that other studies have not confirmed the China study data. For instance, a study from 20063 found no differences in “cancer rates between vegetarians and non-vegetarians.” This study found that vegetarians did tend to have lower BMIs and lower cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians. They also had 20% fewer deaths from ischemic heart disease.
These findings led many to conclude that vegetarian diets are healthier, but when it comes to overall mortality, there is s no difference in vegetarians versus non-vegetarians.
If you look beyond cancer, is a vegetarian diet any more healthful overall than a diet that includes meat? Again, no — and research proves it.
- A Dutch review of the issue concluded that a vegetarian diet conferred no more benefit than a diet that included plenty of unrefined plant foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes, but which also included animal protein. On the other hand, according to their literature review, a vegetarian diet does significantly increase one’s risk of certain nutrient deficiencies like vitamin B12, calcium, iron, and zinc — especially in vegans.4
- Another study found that vegetarian diets were associated with lower vitamin B12 status and therefore to increased levels of artery-clogging homocysteine.5
- A Slovakian researcher has stated that the healthiest inhabitants of Northern Europe are from Iceland, Switzerland and Scandinavia, populations that consume high amounts of animal protein.6
This is the type of balanced reporting that I find to be missing in many discussions of vegetarianism.
I do want to acknowledge that meat consumption is less healthy today than in the past. Fats in meats store pesticides and other toxins that occur in the environment. However, I do not feel a massive shift to vegetarian diets would improve our health statistics, especially in the 25% or so of the population who are insulin resistant.
So, what kind of diet do I recommend? Whole and unprocessed plant foods for their lowered health risks. Eat more vegetables and salads, and some fruit and beans, but limit grains and starchy foods to tolerance.
Unprocessed, organic animal proteins like chicken, turkey, and fish should also be included. Red meat can be eaten, but limited to no more than once a week. Grass-fed beef and bison are good red meat choices.
This is the diet we find to be most successful for the majority of people. It provides immediate health benefits like weight and cholesterol lowering, and is still satisfying. And so far the evidence shows that it will be just as protective against cancer.
The author of the Slovakian study cited above concluded as I do, that it is “ample consumption of fruits and vegetables, not the exclusion of meat,” that makes one healthier.
- Proc Nutr Soc. 2006; 65(1):35-41.
- Arch Pub Health. 2005, 63:1-16.
- Ann Nutr Metab. 2006;50:485-491.
- Ginter E. Bratisl Lek Listy. 2008. 109(10):463-6.