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Meat-eaters vs. Vegetarians
(Part 1 of 2)

What's your diet preference?
What's your diet preference?

Should you eat meat, go vegetarian or try to straddle some middle ground? We’ve learned a lot about healthy diets over the last 30 years, but there’s still so much we don’t understand. To try and explain what we know, I’m going to start by defining some terms.

Omnivores eat both plants and animals. There are no restrictions on what they consume.

Pescatarians eat plants and avoid all meats except fish. Most (but not all) will also eat products with animals involved, like milk from cows, eggs from chickens or honey from bees.

Vegetarians eat plants and avoid all meats. Many will also eat products that have animals involved, like milk from cows, eggs from chickens or honey from bees.

Vegans eat plants and avoid all animal products completely. That means no meat of any kind or foods with animals involved like dairy, eggs or honey.

Flexitarians are primarily vegetarians, but on occasion, they will indulge in fish or other meats.

(For the record, there are many more variations on this theme. For example, Lacto-Ovo Vegetarians are vegans who are OK with eating eggs and milk products. Lacto Vegetarians are vegans who will eat and drink milk products. Ovo Vegetarians are vegans who are allowed to consume eggs. Raw Vegans won’t eat food that’s been heated over 115 degrees Fahrenheit. Finally, there are Fruitarians who skip vegetables and only consume fruit and occasionally some seeds and nuts.)

The argument for eating meat is a simple one. Ounce for ounce, meat is packed with more protein than almost any combination of vegetables. It’s a great source of vitamin B-12, and meat can also be delicious.

The argument against eating a lot of meat is extensive. These are some of the things researchers have found.

Beef and beef alternatives. Beyond Beef, Grass Fed Beef, Regular Beef and Impossible Burgers.
Beef and beef alternatives. Beyond Beef, Grass Fed Beef,
Regular Beef and Impossible Burgers.

Eating like a vegetarian can significantly reduce heart attack and stroke. In a 2017 study published in Nutrients, researchers found “that plant-based diets may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events by an estimated 40% and the risk of cerebral vascular disease events by 29%.”

Grilling meat, especially if it has a lot of fat on it, can increase your cancer risk. When you grill, you’re cooking at higher temperatures. The fat that melts, drips into the fire or grill element. Those drippings flare up. The smoke that rises back up and infuses the meat contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Unfortunately, that tasty charring is a cancer-causing agent.

The higher temperatures also produce another cancer-causing agent called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When red meat, poultry or fish are cooked at higher temperatures, like grilling or broiling, HCAs are produced. The longer you cook the meat, and the higher temperature you cook it at, the more HCAs form.

You can safely grill fruits and vegetables because PAHs and HCAs don’t form on them.

Meats often have sodium nitrite added to help preserve the red coloring. Without it, bacon and hot dogs would appear gray. The problem is, over time, nitrite breaks down into cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines, especially in fried bacon. Many food companies add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to slow down the nitrosamine formation to reduce the danger. That’s good, but it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk.

Companies are starting to claim “no added nitrites” on the packaging to make people feel better about their purchases. Some are made with celery powder or celery juice, which are naturally high in nitrite. In 2011 the New York Times revealed that “natural” cured meats could have up to 10 times as much nitrite as conventional products.

People who eat meat have less healthy guts. Frontiers in Nutrition published a study in 2019 that compared the gut microbiota of vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters. They found “A plant-based diet appears to be beneficial for human health by promoting the development of more diverse and stable microbial systems.” It’s believed fiber was one of the key components that provided benefits.

Finally, a huge study in the UK concluded that even if vegetarians drink alcohol and smoke, they will still live longer than meat-eaters who don’t.

Researchers in Glasgow decided to measure the health differences between meat-eaters and vegetarians. To do that, they analyzed blood and urine for 19 health-related biomarkers. Those biomarkers are related to diseases like cancer, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, joint health and other chronic conditions.

The study consisted of 177,723 healthy people between the ages of 37 and 73 who had a consistent diet for the previous five years. There were 4,111 self-identified vegetarians and 166,516 meat-eaters.

Even after researchers factored in age, sex, education, ethnicity, obesity, smoking, and alcohol intake, they found that vegetarians had significantly healthier numbers on 13 of the 19 biomarkers than the meat-eaters. Vegetarians had 21% lower total cholesterol and 16.4% lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) than meat-eaters. Researchers found that vegetarians had a significantly lower risks for heart disease and cancer.

It wasn’t all good news. Vegetarians had lower levels of Vitamin D, which is considered beneficial, significantly higher levels of fats in their blood and higher levels of a protein called Cystatin C which could mean decreased kidney function.

In a study published in April of 2021, researchers tracked more than 50,000 people in a 23 year-long study. They found that eating one cup of raw, nitrate-rich vegetables or just HALF a cup of cooked nitrate-rich vegetables could significantly lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by 12 to 26 percent.

Nitrate-rich vegetables include arugula, beetroot, celery, chard, Chinese cabbage, kale, parsley, radishes, spinach and turnips. Leafy greens tend to be one of the best sources.

Ready to make your decision? Not quite yet. On top of all those considerations, there are also environmental and “meat replacement” products to consider. Read part two here.

Part 1 2


Research Studies

Land, irrigation water, greenhouse gas, and reactive nitrogen burdens of meat, eggs, and dairy production in the United States

Gidon Eshel, Alon Shepon, Tamar Makov, and Ron Milo
Published: 21 July 2014
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Click Here for the Study

Analysis and valuation of the health and climate change cobenefits of dietary change

Marco Springmann, H. Charles J. Godfray, Mike Rayner, and Peter Scarborough
Published: March 21, 2016
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Click Here for the Study

Cardio-Metabolic Benefits of Plant-Based Diets

Hana Kahleova, Susan Levin and Neal Barnard
Published: 9 August 2017
Nutrients

Click Here for the Study

The Effects of Vegetarian and Vegan Diets on Gut Microbiota

Aleksandra Tomova, Igor Bukovsky, Emilie Rembert, Willy Yonas, Jihad Alwarith, Neal D. Barnard and Hana Kahleova
Published: 2019 Apr 17
Frontiers in Nutrition

Click Here for the Study

Health-related biomarkers profile of vegetarians and meat-eaters:A cross-sectional analysis of the UK Biobank study

Jirapitcha Boonpor, Fanny Petermann-Rocha, Solange Parra-Soto, Frederick K Ho, Stuart R Gray, Carlos Celis-Morales

Click Here for the Data

Differences in health-related biomarkers profile of vegetarians and meat-eaters: A cross-sectional analysis of the UK Biobank study

Boonpor, Petermann Rocha, Parra Soto, Ho, F.; Gray, S.; Celis Morales

Click Here for the Abstract

Vegetable nitrate intake, blood pressure and incident cardiovascular disease: Danish Diet, Cancer, and Health Study

Catherine P. Bondonno, Frederik Dalgaard, Lauren C. Blekkenhorst, Kevin Murray, Joshua R. Lewis, Kevin D. Croft, Cecilie Kyrø, Christian Torp-Pedersen, Gunnar Gislason, Anne Tjønneland, Kim Overvad, Nicola P. Bondonno & Jonathan M. Hodgson
Published: 21 April 2021
European Journal of Epidemiology

Click Here for the Study

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5/24/2021
Updated 5/27/2021