Today in Things From Left Field: Health Outcomes of Austrian Vegetarians

This is out of my wheelhouse on the science end of things, but as I’ve been a strict vegetarian for 5 years and almost a vegetarian for at least 5 years before that, I want to weigh in on this study of some health impacts of a vegetarian diet in Austrian adults.

The punchline to the (open access) study is that:

Our results revealed that a vegetarian diet is related to a lower BMI and less frequent alcohol consumption. Moreover, our results showed that a vegetarian diet is associated with poorer health (higher incidences of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders), a higher need for health care, and poorer quality of life.

(Note that since they found relatively few vegetarians of any stripe to study, vegetarian here includes everything from a vegan to a pescetarian diet. [1])

This all sounds less than stellar for the vegetarians, and I’d wager there’s a number of smug omnivores who read this study and say “hah! See, you *do* need to eat meat, you hippies.” And that hints at what I think is missing from this study: the social context of vegetarianism.

Food is an extremely social thing: eating with people forges and maintains social bonds, and food is central to many traditions, social events, and social structure. What and how we eat is important to our social environment, and meat holds a special place amongst our foods. It’s not the yams, or the cranberry sauce that mentally makes a Christmas dinner a Christmas dinner — it’s the turkey. Meat is the centrepiece of food culture, and eschewing meat is often perceived as eschewing social tradition. I don’t think it’s an enormous leap to consider whether that subtle social distance that often goes along with vegetarianism, especially in a cultural environment that has little vegetarian tradition, influences who becomes a vegetarian or impacts their mental or physical health.

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Last year, I went to Vienna to go the EGU meeting, and while the city was lovely, the only place I’ve gotten more strange looks when asking about vegetarian food was France. [2] What vegetarian food I could find was generally side salads or accidentally vegetarian food, and what meagre vegetarian sections on menus I could find had mostly fish and shrimp dishes. There was a farmer’s market not far from my hotel, and the vegetarian falafel stand I found in the middle of it was like a bright beacon of chickpeas after a week of kasespaetzle. While I ate my falafel on the stool beside the stand, no less than three people walked up to the window and asked, large clear sign reading “NEIN FLEISCH” notwithstanding, if they sold meat. They each left (falafel-less) in various levels of confusion or disappointment. Vegetarianism, it seems, is far from a normalized thing in Vienna (and, extrapolating, Austria).

Which leads me to ask, who are these vegetarians surveyed? Are they immigrants from regions with stronger traditions of vegetarianism, and if so, does their being immigrants impact their health? Are they more likely to be people who are drawn to (or were raised with) alternative medicine (which may explain the lower vaccination rate)? Are they people who became vegetarians after they fell ill in an attempt to eat a healthier diet? Do they feel culturally ostracized when the dominant food culture is centred squarely on animal protein? How difficult do they find it to eat a healthy vegetarian diet when so little vegetarian food is available in restaurants and cafes?

I’m also curious what how the participants were asked to quantify their health in social relationships. Is this a question of “how much a part of the broader community do you feel?” sort of question, or is it a “how strong a specific social network do you have?” sort of a question? I can see how being a vegetarian in a primarily non-vegetarian environment could lead to feeling isolated — it’s difficult to feel connected socially if there’s something that obviously sets you apart from the rest of the community, especially if you’re reminded of that every time you try to buy lunch. But presumably not all omnivorous Austrians are actively hostile to vegetarians, so if the question was attempting to answer the second interpretation, then maybe there’s something else going on.

I’d love to see this study repeated in other locations, and among more specific populations, to see how common these results are. I’m not saying it’s a poorly done study — I just have a lot of questions that it wasn’t designed to answer, and I think the wide range of observed negative health impacts among vegetarians leads to a lot of interesting follow-up research, especially with regards to the social and community context in which vegetarians (Austrian or otherwise) live. This study contradicts a lot of other research (some of which is referenced in the paper) that shows that a vegetarian diet is correlated to generally better health, and I hope that that discrepancy, if nothing else, spurs the researchers to keep looking at this.

Notes:
  1. Call me a stickler, but “vegetarian” means “doesn’t eat animals,” and last I checked, fish are not plants. Pescetarians are not vegetarians in my books, though I’m well aware (not least by the frequency with which fish and seafood dishes are listed as “vegetarian” on menus) that plenty of people think otherwise.
  2. Note than I am not by any stretch of the imagination a renowned world traveller.

2 Responses to Today in Things From Left Field: Health Outcomes of Austrian Vegetarians

  1. Good questions. And I’m with you on pescatarian-does-not-equal-vegetarian.

  2. Suzanne Kettley

    I was rather shocked to see that this was a paper published in a scientific journal. For starters, I did not think that any humans were carnivorous, gaining nutrients mainly from meat, which is how the authors choose to describe the subjects who are not vegetarians. And, I agree that you cannot just include people who eat fish along with vegans and vegetarians. Additionally, the quality of a vegetarian’s diet can vary immensely and there appeared in this study to be no effort to quantify how many fruits and vegetables were being consumed in that group, nor any other food group other than milk, eggs, and fish. Like everyone else, vegetarians have vastly different diets; some are healthy and some are not. To group them under one label and then compare them to other subject groups to me appears like a major deficiency.

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