A vegetarian lifestyle is healthy, but not as healthy as vegetarian ideologists would have us believe, writes a Slovakian nutrition scientist in a review article. Vegetarianism primarily helps to reduce the chance of heart attacks, but does little to prevent cancer.
The four most healthy nationalities in Europe eat large amounts of animal products, Emil Ginter starts off his article. The Icelandic, Swedes and Norwegians eat a lot of fish and dairy products, and the Swiss traditionally eat large amounts of cheese and meat. Ginter composed the table below from figures gathered by the WHO.
It would appear that the risks from animal protein are not as high as we thought. Ginter draws the same conclusion from statistics published in 1999 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The statistics were compiled from data on 76,000 non-meat eaters. [Am J Clin Nutr. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):525S-531S.] From the mountain of data it emerged that vegetarianism above all reduces the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes. Although vegetarian activists often claim that a diet that includes large amounts of meat increases the risk of cancer, the results from this big study show otherwise. Moreover, according to the study, a vegetarian lifestyle increases the risk of death from ‘other causes’.
The big health advantage of a vegetarian diet is probably the lack of nutritional cholesterol, Ginter suspects. This reduces the risk of strokes and heart attacks. In addition, vegetarians tend to eat more fruit and vegetables.
On the other hand, a vegetarian diet – if no nutritional supplements are added – contains little vitamin B2 and B12, and not much beneficial omega-3-fatty acids. That may be the explanation for the low positive health effect, Ginter speculates.
“Vegetarianism is a form of food restriction”, writes Ginter. “And in our overfed society, food restriction is a plus unless it results in a nutritional deficiency. But rigid adherence to exaggerated forms of vegetarianism is anything but healthy.”