Saturday, 12 April 2014

Vegetarian Diets and Quality of Life: Cause or Effect?

Very few would argue that simply excluding flesh from the diet will guarantee optimal health and longevity. However, the CBS Atlanta recently featured a concerning article, Study: Vegetarians Less Healthy, Lower Quality Of Life Than Meat-Eaters, suggesting that diets that exclude flesh promotes poor health. This article which has gathered much attention describes the findings of a cross-sectional survey from Austria that was published in PLoS One.1 This study has previously been addressed by Don Matesz in an very informative post. However, due to very serious omissions made by the CBS Atlanta, I felt that it was necessary to also address this study.


Vegetarian Diets and Perceived Health: Cause or Effect? 


It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is to recognize that this study, based on the Austrian Health Interview Survey (AT-HIS) examined dietary patterns after the subjects had developed health problems. Many vegetarians are not born into vegetarianism, but adopt a vegetarian diet later in life. Therefore, it is important to address why the vegetarians in this study adopted a flesh free diet. This important limitation was acknowledged by the Austrian researchers, who asserted:
Potential limitations of our results are due to the fact that the survey was based on cross-sectional data. Therefore, no statements can be made whether the poorer health in vegetarians in our study is caused by their dietary habit or if they consume this form of diet due to their poorer health status. We cannot state whether a causal relationship exists, but describe ascertained associations.
More importantly, in regards to causation the researchers asserted:
Our results have shown that vegetarians report chronic conditions and poorer subjective health more frequently. This might indicate that the vegetarians in our study consume this form of diet as a consequence of their disorders, since a vegetarian diet is often recommended as a method to manage weight and health.
The researchers suggested that if anything, it was not a flesh free diet that caused a higher rate of a number of health problems, but rather that it was poor health that caused these subjects to adopt a flesh free diet. This is similar to the phenomenon where former smokers report poorer perceived health than current smokers, because they quit smoking with the intention of alleviating poor health.2 This phenomenon is often referred to as reverse causality

Unfortunately, Benjamin Fearnow, the author of the article in the CBS Atlanta ignored the evidence suggesting that these results were the result of reverse causality, and instead suggested that a flesh free diet was actually the cause of a number of health problems:
...the vegetarian diet — characterized by a low consumption of saturated fats and cholesterol that includes increased intake of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain products — carries elevated risks of cancer, allergies and mental health disorders.
It is important to note that the Austrian Health Interview Survey did not measure food intake in actual detail. Subjects who reported consuming a flesh free diet were simply assumed to be consuming a diet poor in dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. However, in this study 36% of the vegetarian subjects were classified as lacto-ovo vegetarians, and 55% pescetarians (allowing fish, dairy and eggs). Only 9% were classified as vegans.1 Therefore, up to 91% of the subjects classified as vegetarians consumed dairy and eggs, being the richest sources of saturated animal fat and cholesterol, respectively. The CBS Atlanta failed to mention even the definition of a vegetarian diet used in this study, yet alone the breakdown of subjects in each category of vegetarian diet.


Vegetarian Diets and Cancer


At the time of the report, it was observed that 4.8% of the subjects of the Austrian Health Interview Survey classified as vegetarians had cancer, as opposed to 1.8% of the subjects following an omnivorous diet rich in meat. Unfortunately, no details were provided as to what portion of the studied population adopted a flesh free diet after diagnosis. However, data from previous studies suggest that cancer patients are highly motivated to adopt a plant based diet. As described previously
The results of a recent study from the Netherlands illustrates the critical importance of considering reverse causality in research on plant-based diets. The researchers found that 75% of the vegetarian participants with cancer adopted a vegetarian diet after diagnosis, consistent with previous research which found that cancer survivors are highly motivated to adopt a more plant-based diet with the intention of improving poor health.3 4
If the 75% figure from the study from the Netherlands is to be considered representative of this Austrian population, this would suggest that only 1.2% of the vegetarians adopted a flesh free diet prior to diagnosis of cancer. This is lower than the 1.8% figure for omnivores following a meat rich diet, but similar to that of the omnivores following a diet low in meat. Unfortunately, due to the lack of reliable data these estimates should be taken with a grain of salt. 

Prospective (forward-looking) studies which measure diet before diseases are diagnosed are much less likely to be complicated by reverse causality than cross-sectional studies, and therefore considered to be more appropriate for determining causality. I previously carried out a meta-analysis of 5 prospective cohort studies comparing the rates of cancer incidence in vegetarians compared to health conscious omnivores. For this review, I updated the meta-analysis to include the rates of major cancers in the Adventist Mortality and Adventist Health studies. In addition, I limited the inclusion criteria to studies that provided estimates specifically for subjects classified as either vegans, or lacto-ovo vegetarians.

In a meta-analysis including 7 prospective cohort studies, vegetarians had a statistically significant 9% lower risk of cancer incidence compared to health conscious omnivores (Fig. 1).5 6 7 8 9 It is important to note that meat intake was relatively low in the omnivorous group in these studies, especially taking into account that a significant portion of the omnivorous subjects were actually classified as semi-vegetarians. This suggests the difference in cancer incidence may be greater when compared to regular meat eaters.

FIGURE 1. Risk ratios and 95% CIs for fully adjusted random-effects models examining associations between vegetarian diets in relation to cancer incidence. ¹Mortality from cancers of the breast, colorectal, lung, prostate and stomach combined. VEG, vegetarian diet.

The finding of a decreased risk of cancer in vegetarians may be explained, in part, by a diet devoid in heme iron. Controlled feeding trials have established that NOCs (N-nitroso compounds) arising from heme iron in meat forms potentially cancerous DNA adducts in the human digestive tract, likely in part, explaining the significant association between heme iron and an increased risk of colorectal cancer in recent meta-analyses of prospective cohort studies.10 11 12 Heme iron has also been associated with numerous other cancers.


Vegetarian Diets and Heart Disease


In the Austrian Health Interview Survey, it was suggested that subjects classified as vegetarians were more likely to have had a history of heart attacks. It is important to note however, that, plant-based diets, poor in saturated fat and cholesterol have for long been adopted by individuals at risk of coronary heart disease. For example, it is known that in studies carried out as far back as the late 1950s, subjects with unfavorable blood cholesterol levels tended to limit intake of dietary cholesterol and saturated fat in order to improve cardiovascular risk factor.13

I previously carried out a meta-analysis of 7 prospective cohort studies comparing the rate of death of coronary heart disease of vegetarians compared to health conscious omnivores. For this review, I examined the incidence of coronary heart disease, and limited the inclusion criteria to studies that provided estimates specifically for subjects classified as either vegans, or lacto-ovo vegetarians. In a meta-analysis including 7 prospective cohort studies, vegetarians had a statistically highly significant 24% lower risk of coronary heart disease compared to health conscious omnivores (Fig. 2).5 6 7 14 15  

FIGURE 2. Risk ratios and 95% CIs for fully adjusted random-effects models examining associations between vegetarian diets in relation to coronary heart disease incidence. VEG, vegetarian diet.

The degree of reduction in risk of mortality from coronary heart disease observed in vegetarians in these cohort studies was generally in proportion to the expected reduced risk based on the differences in levels of total and non-HDL cholesterol, and blood pressure. This is supported by evidence from prospective cohort studies which found that diets characterized as being low in saturated fat and rich in dietary fiber decrease the risk of death from coronary heart disease. These findings are also supported by a recent meta-analysis of clinical trials and observational studies that found that vegetarian diets are associated with lower blood pressure and a lower risk of hypertension.16 Interestingly, the rates of hypertension tended to be lower in the vegetarians in the Austrian Health Interview Survey, suggesting that if the subjects adopted a vegetarian diet as a means to control hypertension, they were likely successful doing so.  


Vegetarian Diets and Mental Heath


In the Austrian Health Interview Survey, it was observed that subjects classified as vegetarians had a higher rate mental illnesses, defined as anxiety disorder or depression. Unfortunately, no data was provided as to what portion of the subjects adopted a vegetarian diet after developing these conditions. These findings have appealed to proponents of Paleoloithic diets who hypothesize that humans have a dietary requirement for meat in order to maintain large brains and mental health. However, in Powered By Plants: Natural Selection & Human Nutrition, Don Matesz examines an extensive body of research that casts considerable doubt on the hypothesis that meat is required to maintain mental health and is responsible for the evolution of the large human brain.

The findings from a number of clinical trials cast doubt on the hypothesis that an appropriately designed flesh free diet has adverse effects on, and that flesh rich diets, poor in carbohydrate have beneficial effects on overall mental health.
  • Sacks and colleagues carried out a crossover trial to examine the effects of adding 250 g/day of beef isocalorically to the diet on blood cholesterol of vegetarians. As expected, during the meat phase total cholesterol and systolic blood pressure increased significantly. However, it was also observed that the participants experienced increased anger, anxiety, confusion, depression, and fatigue and less vigor compared to the vegetarian phase.17
  • Beezhold and Johnston compared the mood scores of participants assigned to either a vegetarian diet, excluding all animal foods except dairy to participants assigned to either a omnivorous diet, or a diet that included fish, but excluded meat and poultry. The researchers found that the vegetarian group demonstrated significantly improved mood scores compared to both the omnivorous and fish groups.18
  • Schweiger and colleagues compared the effects of a vegetarian diet and an omnivorous diet on global mood scores. They found that the vegetarian group demonstrated significantly better global mood, and that carbohydrate intake associated with better global mood.19
  • Kieldsen-Kragh examined the effects of a vegetarian diet on rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers hypothesized that the participants may find the vegetarian diet too restrictive, and that therefore adherence to the diet would impose psychological distress on the them. However, contrary to their expectations, the vegetarian group demonstrated significantly improved physiological health, and were less anxious and depressed compared to the omnivorous group.20
  • Brinkworth and colleagues examined the effects of a very low-carbohydrate diet and a low-fat diet on body weight and mood and cognitive function. Although there was no statistical difference in terms of weight loss between the groups, the participants assigned to the low-fat group demonstrated significantly improved mood scores compared to the participants assigned to the low-carbohydrate diet.21
  • Holloway and colleagues carried out a crossover trial to examine the effects of a high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet on alterations to heart and brain function. The researchers found that the participants not only demonstrated significantly impaired cardiac health, but also impaired attention, memory recall speed, and mood while following the high-fat, low-carbohydrate diet.22
  • Halyburton and colleagues examined the effects of a low and high-carbohydrate diet on mood and cognitive function. Although, unlike other studies, the researchers found that mood was similar in both groups, participants assigned to the low-fat diet demonstrated improved speed of processing compared to the participants assigned to the low-carbohydrate group.23

Mass Media as a Source of Health Information


The article featured in the CBS Atlanta is just one example of many studies that are misinterpreted, likely intentionally by the mass media. Unfortunately, the mass media is certainly not a reliable source for health information, as their primarily concern is to publish news that appeal to their targeted audience. In this case it was meat eaters who desired to hear negative things about vegetarian diets. This is likely why many important studies do not receive appropriate media attention,  and why consumers are either left in the dark or simply confused about health information.

Although there is convincing evidence of the health benefits of an appropriately planned diet that either excludes or significantly limits the intake of flesh, such findings cannot be extrapolated to all diets that exclude flesh. The definition of a vegetarian diet only provides information as to what foods an individual restricts, and not which foods are included. This is why the emphasis of a healthy diet also needs be on which foods are included, not only on those that are excluded. Future research in this area should address what foods vegetarians are substituting meat with,  the length of adherence to a vegetarian diet, and whether subjects adopted a vegetarian diet in order to alleviate poor health. This would allow for a considerably more meaningful interpretation of the effects of vegetarian diets.

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