A vegetarian diet may be linked to a lower body mass index (BMI) and less frequent alcohol consumption; however, it also appears to be associated with poorer health, a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life, according to the results of a study published in PLOS One.
The relationship between diet and health is well established; however, there is still uncertainty regarding the benefits of a vegetarian diet over a diet that includes meat and other animal products.
Researchers from Austria used data from the Austrian Health Interview Survey to analyze differences between diets and subsequent health variables. The analysis included 1,320 subjects divided into four groups: vegetarian diet; carnivorous diet rich in fruits and vegetables; carnivorous diet less rich in meat; and carnivorous diet rich in meat. (Each group included 330 people.)
The researchers examined the relationship between dietary habits, demographic characteristics and general lifestyle differences. In general, vegetarians are more physically active, drink less alcohol, and smoke less tobacco then meat eaters. They also have a higher socioeconomic status and a lower body mass index. However, that’s where the benefits seem to end. The vegetarian diet— characterized by a low consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol and a high intake of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products—was associated with a higher risk of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders.
The results of the study indicated that vegetarians had a 50 percent increase in heart attacks, a 50 percent increase in cancer incidence, and were twice as likely to have allergies. In general, vegetarians were in poorer health than the people in the other dietary groups. What’s more, they reported a lower quality of life and appeared to have higher rates of anxiety and depression. In addition, people who consumed less animal fat had poorer health care habits, including a lack of preventive care and avoidance of vaccinations. Finally, this group tended to have chronic health problems that required more frequent visits to doctors.
Thus far, no researchers can with utmost certainty determine the ideal diet for everyone. Different individuals seem to benefit from different diets. A diet high in fruits and vegetables offers a variety of benefits; however, it appears that a moderate intake of animal fat may be important as well.
Burkert NT, Muckenhuber J, Großschädl F, et al: Nutrition and Health – The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample Study. PLOS One. Published February 7, 2014. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088278