I’m skeptical of health studies because, when it comes to studying real human beings and the effects of certain lifestyle habits on their physical health, it’s tough to tell just what’s causing any good or bad health results.
And the latest study on vegetarians is a great example of why I’m skeptical.
Seventh Day Adventists are a popular subject of health studies because their religion requires that they follow certain lifestyle practices that few other American communities follow. They don’t smoke. They don’t eat meat. They don’t use drugs, and they’re discouraged from drinking.
This makes it easy for us to compare them to typical Americans who don’t live by those same religious guidelines. They’ve most famously been the subject of studies on vegetarianism. Go to a Seventh Day Adventist church and you have a nice vegetarian sample set right there.
But these religious proscriptions also make Seventh Day Adventists a poor choice of study for the impacts of vegetarianism on health. As we all know, eliminating smoking from our lives, reducing drinking and avoiding drugs typically have powerful health benefits. If we assume that any health benefits Seventh Day Adventists see come from their vegetarianism alone, we may be missing significant alternative sources of healthful results.
What’s more, there are enormous variations among vegetarian diets, and many ways in which vegetarianism may be helping us not by eliminating animal products but by eliminating foods we often eat along with meat. For instance, sugary beverages like sodas and sweetened iced teas are vegetarian–vegan, nonetheless–but still awful for us. It’s possible to go vegan but eat terribly. And by eliminating meat, we eliminate not only the burger patty but also the white bread bun that goes with it, and the French fries we’re often served alongside it. It may be that the patty wasn’t hurting us, but those other accompaniments were.
So, why am I telling you about this study, and why does the title of this post tout the benefits of vegetarianism? Because, all caveats aside, the results of the study are striking. Seventh Day Adventist men live 9.5 years longer, on average, than the average American man. Women live 6.1 years longer. Vegans among them are 30 pounds lighter, and 5 BMI units lower, on average, than the typical American. Vegetarians and vegans alike are less insulin resistant than the average American.
Of course, a good portion of these figures may come from the study participants’ abstinence from smoking, drinking or drug use. But it’s doubtful we’d see this large an impact solely from those three sources, since independent studies on those other vices don’t seem to produce the same sorts of results.
And one big benefit of examining vegetarians and vegans who are Seventh Day Adventist is that they’re vegetarian or vegan for religious reasons, rather than for health reasons. This means it’s more likely that their good health results from vegetarianism or veganism, rather than that their vegetarianism or veganism being a product of their already caring about health (in which case they may be healthy because they care, and take care in all aspects of their lives, rather than because of the vegetarianism).
One final point: It’s worth noting that reducing animal products, rather than simply eliminating, seems to show positive, albeit more moderate, health effects, too.
In any event, reducing animal products seems to have a positive health impact, potentially a very large one.