The studies seem at first glance quite clear: vegetarians live healthier. Especially in the area of cardiovascular disease, people who do not eat meat have a lower risk of disease. One reason may lie in their food choices: vegetarians often eat more vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts, which lowers the risk of cardiovascular disease. A meta-analysis from England has recorded – in following the diets of subjects – a reduction in risk for vegetarians by 15 to 30 percent of suffering from heart and circulatory disease.
Vegetarian fare can also be therapeutically relevant: by way of example of rheumatoid arthritis, it has been able to be shown in studies that not eating meat, sometimes involving initial fasting, leads to symptom relief. Even if other lifestyle factors such as smoking, alcohol consumption or sport and socio-demographic parameters are excluded, the advantages of a vegetarian diet are obviously maintained. In one comparison study, vegetarians, regardless of their other habits, had a 36 per cent lower risk of developing a metabolic syndrome.
Increased Colorectal Cancer Risk
Yet there are studies to the contrary: according to results of a prospective observational study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition for example, vegetarians indeed suffer overall rather less often from cancer. Abstaining from meat however had a statistically correlated link to significantly increased rates of colorectal carcinoma. That moderate consumption of meat need not be unhealthy was confirmed by the Vegetarian Study published in 2005 by the German Cancer Research Center. The Heidelberg researchers had for 21 years studied the impact of a vegetarian diet on the risk of death. Vegetarians did not at all supercede the meat eaters in longevity. Vegetarians they say tend to merely be less likely to be in danger of getting vasoconstricting heart disease.
For meat lovers, a vegetarian diet comes up short first and foremost in one thing: enjoyment. In addition the human digestive system, from an evolutionary perspective, is not designed for a pure vegetarian diet, they argue. If one heads back to the Stone Age, the people of that time ate no dairy products, pasta and many fruits and vegetables, but mainly meat. Our digestive system has not changed over the millennia. Jürgen Abraham, ham producer and chairman of the National Association of Food Industries, considers only a mix of foods including meat as good for the health. “Alongside the consumption of protein from meat the human brain has grown to its present size”, he stated on the German TV program “hart aber fair”. Those who renounce meat risk having deficiencies that have made themselves detectable as reduced iron and vitamin B12 levels, says Abraham.
For Dr. Christian Kessler, a physician and researcher in the Department of Natural Medicine at Immanuel Hospital in Berlin, these are myths from the past: “People who eat diversely but consume no meat suffer no deficiencies. A meatless lacto-ovo vegetarian diet is recommendable for people of all ages, including pregnant and nursing women”, says Kessler. “Of course only if one is conscienciously aware of his or her vegetarian diet”, he adds. Kessler points to the so-called pudding vegetarians who do abstain from meat, but fall back on junk food or have a very imbalanced diet. This could, depending on circumstances, very probably lead to nutritional deficiencies.
On 9 December 2012 under the direction of the Charité University Clinic of Natural Medicine at Immanuel Hospital in Berlin, the Vegetarians Federation of Germany, and The Carstens Foundation, Europe’s first scientific symposium for physicians on the vegetarian diet in health care, VegMed, took place in Berlin. Professor Claus Leitzmann, former head of the Giessen Institute for Nutritional Sciences, and the keynote speaker of the event, said: “It is high time to bring doctors and health consultants up to date in terms of vegetarian diet and medicine. The findings of recent years should dispel myths about vegetarianism and create opportunities in medical practice”.
Avoiding the consumption of meat can happen for different reasons: aside from the health benefits that a vegetarian diet brings, it seems to be that most vegetarians simply reject the killing of animals. Some are also worried about the environment – and for good reason: livestock create about one-fifth of the world’s greenhouse gases and vast masses of contaminated drinking water. In order to obtain a ton of protein from meat, a much larger area would be needed than if the same amount of protein would be produced with plant food. Worldwide overfishing and ongoing climate change provide further arguments for doing without meat and fish.
How can doctors draw their patients to a vegetarian lifestyle? Kessler does not see much worth in attempting to use dogmatic belief. “It’s much more exciting to invite people to engage in experiments”, he says of his experience in the hospital, where all patients of the naturopathic centre have for years been catered to exclusively vegetarian-style. “If doctors appear less preachy, but authentic, it inspires the patient much more to try a different lifestyle”, says Kessler. To eat a vegetarian diet does not mean in the end simply omiting the roast and eating only potatoes with gravy.
Instead the doctor, who also cares for outpatients at the Charité University Clinic of Natural Medicine, distributes vegetarian recipe books or event information on cooking classes. “I do know that vegetarian diet is healthy, but I also try and emphasise that vegetarian food is delicious and sensual”. He is not a fanatic for a meatless diet – nor a dogmatist. “Every person has to decide for themselves whether and how much meat he or she wants”, says Kessler. As a staunch vegetarian however he happily gives ideas and inspiration for vegetarian diets.
Whoever cannot make such a decision simply eats less meat. The so-called “flexitarians” largely avoid meat, only occasionally giving in to an appetite for it. Sarah Wiener, flexitarian, chef and restaurant owner, consumes meat “like cake: as something special, something rarely done, something I appreciate because it has quality and carries a price”.