It's time to forget (almost) everything you know about healthy eating. At least, that's what a new study from the Medical University of Graz in Austria seems to suggest. Although vegetarians tend to have a healthier lifestyle, this might not bode so well after all — vegetarianism is linked to higher rates of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders. Say what?!
For the study, which was published in February in PLOS One, researchers evenly divided 1,320 Austrians into four nutritional categories: those with a vegetarian diet; a carnivorous diet rich in fruits and vegetables; a carnivorous diet less rich in meat; and a carnivorous diet rich in meat. According to the study's abstract, participants were matched according to their age, sex and socioeconomic status.
There was a little bit of good news for those in the vegetarian group: Their diet was associated with a lower BMI and a higher socioeconomic status. Vegetarians also demonstrated better health behavior — they were are more likely to exercise frequently, drink less alcohol and smoke less. Beyond that, it's all downhill.
"Overall, our findings reveal that vegetarians report poorer health, follow medical treatment more frequently, have worse preventive health care practices, and have a lower quality of life," the researchers wrote.
The study showed higher rates of allergies, cancer, anxiety and depression among those following a vegetarian diet. Vegetarians were also likely to be vaccinated less frequently, and went to the doctor for preventative check-ups less often than those in other groups.
"Vegetarians in our study suffer significantly more often from anxiety disorder and/or depression," the researchers write. "Additionally, they have a poorer quality of life in terms of physical health, social relationships, and environmental factors."
However, as the researchers take pains to point out in their write-up, there are significant limitations to this study that should encourage us to think twice. All of the data is self-reported, which is obviously problematic; who says the participants were being completely accurate and truthful when reporting what they had been eating?
Secondly, the data is cross-sectional. This makes it basically impossible to say whether those in the vegetarian group were less healthy because they were vegetarian or whether they decided to start following a vegetarian diet because they were less healthy.
There's also no way of knowing whether the vegetarians were following a healthy, balanced vegetarian diet or whether their food intake was of limited variety, which could easily cause a number of nutritional deficiencies.
Still, I reckon this news is cause for steak frites for dinner tonight. After all, it is allergy season.
Images: Nutrition and Health - The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample Study/PLOS One