ATLANTA (CBS ATLANTA) — Vegetarians may have a lower BMI and drink alcohol sparingly, but vegetarian diets are tied to generally poorer health, poorer quality of life and a higher need for health care than their meat-eating counterparts.
A new study from the Medical University of Graz in Austria finds that vegetarians are more physically active, drink less alcohol and smoke less tobacco than those who consume meat in their diets. Vegetarians also have a higher socioeconomic status and a lower body mass index. But 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.
Vegetarians were twice as likely to have allergies, a 50 percent increase in heart attacks and a 50 percent increase in incidences of cancer.
The cross-sectional study from Austrian Health Interview Survey data and published in PLos One examined participants dietary habits, demographic characteristics and general lifestyle differences.
The most significant dietary habit difference between meat-eaters and vegetarians concerned their BMI and alcohol consumption – with both being higher for those who consume meat.
Many past studies have instead put an emphasis on the health risks associated with red meat and carnivorous diets, but this study points the other dietary direction. However, the researchers do caution that continuing studies will be needed to substantiate some of the rather broad dietary distinctions, associations presented in this current research.
Overall, vegetarians were found to be in a poorer state of health compared to other dietary groups. Vegetarians reported higher levels of impairment from disorders, chronic diseases, and “suffer significantly more often from anxiety/depression.”
Subjects who consumed lower amounts of animal fat were also linked to poor health care practices, such as avoidance of vaccinations and a lack of preventive care.
Chronic problems associated with vegetarians and people eating carnivorous diets rich in fruits and vegetables were linked to more frequent visits to doctors, which the study authors suggest requires public health programs to reduce the health risk due to their nutritional factors.
The researchers conclude: “Our study has shown that Austrian adults who consume a vegetarian diet are less healthy (in terms of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), have a lower quality of life, and also require more medical treatment.”
“Therefore, a continued strong public health program for Austria is required in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that healthy diets rich in fruits and vegetables may reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases for all dietary groups. A 2009 study from the CDC found that about 1 in 200 young Americans, or 367,000 US children, are vegetarians.
— Benjamin Fearnow