Vegetarianism: Don’t Believe the Health Hype?

After being a vegetarian for about 8 years, I can’t imagine ever going back to a diet that contains a lot of meat. And I hope that, if I ever have children, they will continue to buy quorn mince instead of regular mince and eat vegetables instead of a steak. However, after reading the results of a study carried out by researchers from Cornell University in the US, I can’t help to feel glad my grandparents and great-grandparents were from rural areas where meat was traditionally included in the diet.

By comparing hundreds of complete sets of DNA from a primarily vegetarian population in Pune, India to meat-eating people in Kansas, the researchers found there was a significant genetic difference. The fact they differ doesn’t surprise me, but the disparity is quite unexpected. Apparently, long-term vegetarianism can lead to genetic mutations that not only raise the risk of heart disease and cancer, but can also persist through generations.

Doesn’t eating red meat raise the risk of cancer? Well, yes. But it appears to be that being a vegetarian is not risk-free either. The genetic mutations that occur to make it easier for vegetarians to absorb essential fatty acids from plants also boost the production of arachidonic acid, which is linked to inflammatory disease and cancer. Especially when coupled with a diet high in vegetable oils, such as sunflower oil, the mutated gene can quickly turn the vital fatty acids into dangerous arachidonic acids.

Additionally, the mutation, called rs66698963, interferes with the production of beneficial Omega 3 fatty acid, a protective against heart disease. This is especially problematic because of the shift in diets away from Omega 3 – found in fish and nuts – to less healthy Omega 6 fats – found in vegetable oils – that’s been happening since the Industrial Revolution.

Obviously, this doesn’t sound very positive. However, the solution with regards to the Omega-problem is to use oils that are low in omega-6 linoleic acid such as olive oil. Secondly, the mutation only occurs in populations that have had a primarily vegetarian diet for generations, so your decision to stop eating meat will not affect your DNA over a night. And finally, other research has suggested that vegetarianism lowers the risk of diabetes, strokes, and obesity. Vegetarianism will not kill you. Life will, eventually.  

[Aike Jansen]


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