Are Meat Eaters Healthier Than Vegetarians?

The problem with jazzing up science reporting with misleading headlines (and articles), though, is that it makes real actual science harder to understand, and presents members of the public with conflicting information.

Another day, another round of bad science reporting. See, a gang of Austrians -- Nathalie T. Burkert, Johanna Muckenhuber, Franziska Großschøadl, Éva Rásky, and Wolfgang Freidl, specifically -- did a study comparing the health and dietary habits of 1,320 Austrians. The study found correlations between better health and...wait for it...a meat-based diet, not a vegetarian one, contradicting the claims made by self-righteous vegetarians (and, uh, science) for decades.

Here's where things get interesting, or awful, depending on your perspective. The media promptly seized upon these results to declare that meat eaters are healthier than vegetarians, and headlines to that effect swept across the globe. Not only were veggies less healthy, CBS news informed us, for example, they also had a "lower quality of life."

The researchers are pissed:

There have already been press releases claiming our results are an advert for the meat industry, but our study hasn't proved that. We have already distanced ourselves from this claim as it is an incorrect interpretation of our data.

And you can't blame them. They freely admit that their results contradicted what they had expected, but they also stressed that there were a number of things in the methodology of the study that made this only a correlation, not a concrete demonstration of cause and effect.

Here's a bit more on the methodology of the study: They broke participants into four groups, including vegetarians, heavy meat eaters (obligate carnivores, if you will), meat eaters who consume lots of fresh fruits and veggies, and meat eaters with a diet "less rich in meat." These are very distinct categories, dividing into something much more complex than simply "people who eat meat and people who do not."

Next, they controlled for socioeconomic factors; they started with a base of vegetarians and found comparable people in the other groups to create a fair and reasonable standard. It wouldn't have been fair, for example, to compare primarily wealthy vegetarians with a high level of educational attainment with low-income meat eaters. Factors like exercise levels, smoking, and alcohol intake were also brought into the equation to come up with demographically similar and comparable groups, with one key difference: level of meat consumption.

Vegetarians, overall, had a higher incidence of chronic conditions like asthma, ulcers, stroke, and mental illness. This was not the case across the board and with every single illness -- veggies scored pretty low in the incontinence category, for example, and were less prone to arthritis than heavy meat eaters.

You could glance at this data and decide it's evidence that vegetarians are less healthy. But is that really what's going on? There are a lot of important factors the researchers didn't control for, and they openly discuss this when talking about the need for more research into this subject to explore what's happening.

For example, why do people become vegetarian? Many people choose a vegetarian diet for health reasons -- and thus, they might be more likely to have chronic health conditions in the first place, in addition to being more aware of health complaints. Do vegetarians go to the doctor more because they're vegetarian, or because they're sensitive to their health and more likely to ask for an appointment? Furthermore, the study relied on self-reported health metrics, which can be unreliable -- a better tool might have been a long-term observational study that took advantage of retroactive health records.

Did participants fully understand the definition of "vegetarian"? Were some cheating, or using the term in their own way, even if the researchers clearly defined it for them? The term is highly flexible depending on norms where you are. In some regions, it refers to strict veganism, with no animal products whatsoever, including honey. In others, it means lacto-ovo vegetarianism, where people consume eggs and dairy, but don't eat meat of any kind. Pescetarians eat fish, and other variants on the vegetarian norm are out there too. If these factors weren't adequately controlled for in the study (or if vegetarians weren't honest about how much they adhere to their diets), this could be a flaw as well.

And, of course, while the vegetarian diet is often billed as "healthful," we all know that nutrition is complex. If you're going to define lots of fruits and vegetables as healthful, though, which many people do, that's not necessarily what vegetarians eat. Some consume diets heavy in processed grains, sugars, and related products -- and I say this not by way of criticism, but by way of pointing out a simple fact. Being vegetarian doesn't equate to eating a balanced, healthy diet -- whatever that looks like for an individual.

The study seemed to suggest, however, that those eating a diet with moderate meat and heavy fruits and vegetables fared the best. That's not the same thing as concluding that meat eaters are healthier than vegetarians, because that statement is rather misleading. Someone who eats a heavy meat-based diet actually fares more poorly on many self-reported health metrics, even in this study, which means it's not as simple as meat versus vegetables.

The bottom line on these findings is, as it so often is with science, that they're interesting, and merit further exploration. Unfortunately for journalists on the science beat, that's not exactly the stuff of which exciting headlines are made. The problem with jazzing up science reporting with misleading headlines (and articles), though, is that it makes real actual science harder to understand, and presents members of the public with conflicting information.

When it comes to diet, this has definitely been an issue, with an explosion of reporting on studies of late declaring any number of often contradictory things. Eat saturated fats! Drink wine! No, don't drink wine! Eat chocolate! No, actually, it turns out you would need to eat a ton of chocolate to have the desired health effect! Eat less grain! Eat more grain! Only eat whole grain! Grain is evil!

Prescriptionist attitudes on eating and food create a really unhealthy environment for everyone. Researchers are finding more and more that, surprise, different bodies have different needs, and your ideal diet might not be your friend's ideal diet, and her dentist's ideal diet definitely won't work for your second cousin once removed. What matters is eating the food that makes you feel happy, and well. Living in a body that you feel comfortable and alive in -- as comfortable as you can be. And there are lots of ways to accomplish that.