Vegetarians and vegans are no better people. But mostly they are slimmer and healthier than meat eaters. New scientific studies have now found further differences – they even affect the psyche.
The latest news from German slaughterhouses have certainly given the vegetarians and vegans community a new boost. In addition to animal welfare and ecological aspects, avoiding meat is usually also based on the desire for a healthy diet. What does science say
1. Consensus: little meat is okay, but not really necessary
Every German eats 150 grams of meat and meat products on average every day. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it clearly exceeds the maximum 600 grams that the German Nutrition Society per week finds acceptable. Many consumers are also significantly higher. It is these “meat eaters” who are mentioned in the studies on the harmful effects of meat consumption.
But even with those who eat a lot of meat, there are differences: because those who eat a lot of unprocessed meat, and at the same time high in fiber and low in sugar, have a low risk of disease. This is the case, for example, with the Paleo diet.
Experts consider the Mediterranean diet to be the best nutritional method in the world, and it has been for two decades. In 2019 she was once again named the best diet of the year by “US News” . A lot of vegetables, fish and olive oil end up on the plate, but little meat and processed foods.
In comparative studies, it is not vegetarians and vegans who do well, but people who eat little meat.
But you can also say with a clear conscience to Tilmann Kühn, nutritional epidemiologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg: “If you eat wholesome vegetarian food, your body is fine. On the contrary, according to scientific findings, a vegetarian diet is actually very healthy. ”With one small caveat:“ Less meat ”only makes sense if the calorie advantage is not topped up with pizza, biscuits or meat imitations.
2. Those who do not eat meat also live more healthily in other ways
Numerous studies have shown that the biggest meat fans usually do not have good eating habits. Even if you neglect the nutritional value of individual foods, a diet high in meat and sausage as well as sugar, white flour and saturated fats from ready-made foods is unhealthy. Because healthy foods such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains or nuts are definitely neglected.
3. meat or plant? Nutritional studies are conditionally meaningful
In the laboratory, it is possible to determine how certain nutrients affect human cells. Studies with humans don’t work like that. The health comparison “meat eaters versus vegetarians” is only possible in observational studies. Their conclusions are only an approximation of reality. Too many factors play a role in health for the question to be reduced to schnitzel and tofu . For example: is a chain-smoking vegan healthier than an athletic meat eater?
Epidemiological studies can never conclusively prove that meat consumption is unhealthy. And it is also not conclusively clear which individual ingredients are harmful to health.
4. When it comes to meat, it depends on the color
Beef, pork, lamb or sheep provide the so-called red meat. It is said to cause cardiovascular diseases and problems with the blood vessels.
For US researcher Stanley Hazen from the Cleveland Clinic, a metabolic product of the carnitine contained in red meat is responsible for this. To prove this, he had 113 test subjects eat 250 grams of steak a day for four weeks. A two-week break was followed by four weeks with a correspondingly large amount of (white) poultry meat and, at the end, a meat-free month.
The result , published in the “European Heart Journal”, showed a significant 3-fold increase in the TMAO plasma concentration during the steak weeks. TMAO is produced during the metabolism of carnitine and is a risk marker for hardening of the arteries in the blood vessels. The diet with poultry and vegetables led to a decrease in plasma concentrations in the test subjects.
Red meat is also directly or indirectly involved in the development of cancer.
For example, studies by the DKFZ have shown that people who eat a lot of red meat have increased biomarkers of certain roasting substances, such as those produced during roasting and grilling, swim in the blood. These people were at an increased risk of developing colon cancer.
In the large-scale EPIC study across Europe, 519,000 test persons were examined to find out the connection between diet and cancer .
The results show that red meat can increase the risk of colon cancer. Accordingly, the risk of the disease increases by almost 50 percent if the daily consumption of meat is 100 grams above the recommended amount. The same amount of sausage products increases the risk by as much as 70 percent.
The risk of stomach cancer is also said to be related to heavy meat consumption. In people infected with the Helicobacter pylori bacterium, the risk increases by a factor of five.
5. Theory 1: Iron makes meat unhealthy
There are various theories about why red meat is so problematic. The so-called iron load hypothesis is based on the fact that red meat contains a comparatively high amount of iron. This so-called heme iron has a high bioavailability, unlike iron from plant food, and thus enters the organism in larger quantities.
It has long been suggested that high levels of iron in the blood increase the risk of cancer . However, this theory has not yet been proven by studies.
6. Theory 2: BMMF make meat unhealthy
Scientists working with Nobel laureate Harald zur Hausen believe they have found another cause: a previously unknown class of pathogens is responsible for the increased risk of colon cancer .
These “Bovine Milk and Meat Factors (BMMF)” enter the human intestines through the consumption of meat and dairy products from European cattle. There it comes to a chronic inflammation, which indirectly promotes the development of colon cancer.
7. Avoiding meat protects the intestines
Vegetarian foods contain fiber, which has a positive effect on the microbiome in the gut. Vegans have a particularly large number of them. In addition to fruit and vegetables, lactic acid foods such as yogurt also support the intestinal flora. Vegetarians often consume these. Researchers from the University of New York have confirmed that vegans and vegetarians have more protective types of gut bacteria than meat eaters.
Meat also poses a cancer risk through its preparation and processing: for example, when meat is heated up, several potentially harmful substances are formed at the same time, including so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); curing also produces nitrosamines. These substances can promote the development of cancer, and above all they increase the risk of colon cancer. Methods such as curing and intense heating are particularly used for industrially processed meat, such as sausage and ham. Accordingly, processed meat products are particularly unhealthy.
8. Avoiding meat makes you slim
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Cognitive and Neurosciences (MPI CBS) and the Leipzig University Hospital examined almost 9,000 people, what connections there are between body and mind on the one hand and not consuming animal products on the other. regardless of age, gender and level of education. The study was published in June 2020 in the specialist magazine “Nutrients”.
The result of the physical impact: the less food of animal origin was on the menu, the lower the average body mass index (BMI) and thus the body weight. “Products that are excessively high in fat and sugar make you fat. They stimulate the appetite and delay the feeling of satiety. If you do without animal foods, you eat fewer such products on average, ”explains Evelyn Medawar, first author of the work.
9. Avoiding meat and the psyche
With regard to the psychological effects of the meatless diet, the Leipzig study found no particular susceptibility to neuroses in vegetarians. The study director Veronica Witte says: “Previous analyzes had found that more neurotic people generally leave out certain food groups more often. We focused solely on avoiding animal products and could not observe any correlation. ”No connection was found between a predominantly plant-based diet and depressive moods. There was evidence of this in previous studies.
However, the researchers found a difference in one of the determining factors of personality: the extroversion or introversion. People with predominantly plant-based foods on the menu are more introverted than those who eat primarily animal products. The study authors have not yet found an explanation for this.