A recent Oxford study on vegetarianism has been getting a lot of attention. Released January 30th, the study shows a 32% reduction in ischemic heart disease risk for people eating a vegetarian diet over an omnivorous one. The study was massive – close to 45,000 people were enrolled and were followed for an average of more than 10 years. It was controlled for sex, age, BMI, activity level, smoking and other heart disease risk factors.
This is not the first time vegetarianism has come out on top in health-related research. Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (seen in the documentary Forks Over Knives) conducted a 20-year study showing a reversal of vascular damage in heart disease patients who adopted a strict plant-based diet. And preliminary results in October 2012 from a study on Seventh Day Adventists show that vegetarian men live an average of 9.5 years longer and vegetarian women live 6.1 years longer than their non-vegetarian counterparts. The study includes 96,000 people from Canada and the United Studies and is midway to completion.
So far, research on health and longevity seems to be siding with vegetarianism. This latest Oxford study is extensive and sounds quite conclusive. But, as with any research, critics could undoubtedly find fault with it or say it doesn’t go deep enough. In these massive, lifestyle-based studies, it is very hard to control for all factors. For example, we don’t know the other foods the participants were eating. Did both groups eat the same amount of heart-healthy fruits and vegetables? If not, that could skew the results. And we don’t know the kinds of meat the omnivores were eating. Was it primarily hotdogs and processed meats? Why doesn’t somebody conduct a study comparing vegetarian diet to a diet that includes only so-called healthy meats (lean, organic, grass-fed, etc.)?
In my clinical practice as a naturopathic doctor, I have definitely seen benefits for patients who switch to a vegetarian diet. When some people stop eating meat they feel so much better for it – they can lose weight more easily, start sleeping more soundly, and lower their blood pressure. But I’ve also seen former vegetarians introduce healthy meats into their diet and improve their symptoms. Some feel stronger and have more energy; or the change may improve their digestion. Ultimately, the best diet for someone can be very individualized. People have differences in metabolism, body type, genetics and a host of other factors. These differences mean that the very same diet that keeps you feeling healthy might make your friend gain weight and feel fatigued. By honouring and accommodating these differences we can help each other reach our optimal health.