Over the course of six years, the study’s authors kept tabs on over 73,000 adult members of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, which makes vegetarianism a key element of its faith. Although not all members of the church follow the diet, they were all surveyed to determine their diets and then frequently checked on to find out how many died and what the causes of death might be.
In this study, 12% fewer vegetarians died than meat-eaters, and experienced 19% fewer incidences of heart disease than their carnivorous counterparts.
And, although intriguing, these findings are nothing new.
Months earlier, JAMA published results from 2 prospective cohort studies which came to, once again, the same conclusion: that consumption of red meat is associated with a risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer mortality and, ultimately, overall death.
For the record, I’m not entirely convinced. Not that I don’t believe that plant-based diets are a key component of a healthy life – I do – but because I’m not entirely convinced that red meat, in and of itself, is the problem. (And I’m not even a red meat eater!)
In my mind, there are three important things that must be kept in the backs of our minds as we try to apply this research to our daily lives. Lifestyle choices are not made in a vacuum. In this day and age, if you’re vegetarian, chances are high that you frequent certain stores, or have certain habits that invariably will also contribute to good health.
In his book In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan briefly touches on the fact that, when studying the dietary habits of populations, we would be wise to not ignore any other lifestyle factors that may or may not contribute to good health:
"The Mediterranean diet is widely believed to be one of the most healthful traditional diets, yet much of what we know about it is based on studies of people living in the 1950s on the island of Crete—people who in many respects led lives very different from our own. Yes, they ate lots of olive oil and more fish than meat. But they also did more physical labor. As followers of the Greek Orthodox church, they fasted frequently. They ate lots of wild greens—weeds. And, perhaps most significant, they ate far fewer total calories than we do. Similarly, much of what we know about the health benefits of a vegetarian diet is based on studies of Seventh-Day Adventists, who muddy the nutritional picture by abstaining from alcohol and tobacco as well as meat. These extraneous but unavoidable factors are called, aptly, confounders."
Secondly, all red meat is not created equal. If the average American’s vegetable intake is largely fast food French fries, then is it safe to assume a large portion of its red meat consumption is fast food, as well? Red meat that is, notoriously, riddled with antibiotics, ammonias, preservatives, and – frustratingly – excessive amounts of salt and other ingredients linked with cardiovascular diseases and cancers? Did the studies control for the kinds of red meat that made up each individual person’s consumption, or were they merely going off the assumption that red meat is, in fact, simply red meat?
Lastly, a plant-based diet – defined as a diet that is largely made up of fruits and vegetables, with minimal inclusion of meat and dairy – like vegetarianism doesn’t only mean that there’s a lack of meat; it means there’s also a plethora of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and gut flora that help the body not only fight illness and disease, but help it thrive long afterwards. If the studies are following people who’ve been vegetarians for a minimum of 19 years, rest assured that likelihood is high that they’ve been nourishing their bodies far better than the average fast food goer, and they’re undoubtedly set up for success.
Do I think this research is a nail in the coffin for carnivores, no pun intended? Of course not. I do think this should serve as incentive for the rest of us to eat more veggies, and consider upping the quality of the red meat we absolutely must consume. We’ll be giving our bodies a bit more of what they truly need the most, and improving the quality of the things we actually enjoy. As I always say, your body will thank you for it!
Erika Nicole Kendall is the writer behind the award winning blog, A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss, where she blogs her journey of losing over 150lbs. A personal trainer certified in women’s fitness, fitness nutrition and weight loss coaching, she can be found on Facebook and Twitter.