Niki Bezzant: Veges get bad rap

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Despite recent misleading headlines, a vegetarian diet is still known to be healthy. Photo / Julie Carson
Despite recent misleading headlines, a vegetarian diet is still known to be healthy. Photo / Julie Carson

Don't you love the way nutrition research is reported? Every week there's a new study and a new conclusion, seemingly contradictory to the last.

The most recent example was a story about vegetarianism. You'll have seen the headlines: "Vegetarian diet raises risk of heart disease and cancer". Clickbait gold: a radical statement, a challenge to what we thought we knew and a touch of schadenfreude - those smug vegetarians are going to die just like the rest of us.

Except that wasn't what the study said at all.

This wasn't a study of vegetarian diets and risk for heart disease or cancer. This was a study by experts in fat metabolism, looking at genes and how populations have adapted to the fats in their diets.

The researchers wanted to know if populations who eat a vegetarian diet have become better at producing the fats they don't typically get in their diets, such as some types of omega-3 fats.

They found some people - including a large percentage of mainly vegetarian Indians - have a genetic variation that lets them "efficiently process omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids and convert them into compounds essential for early brain development and controlling inflammation".

That also means that when these populations change their traditional vegetarian diet - as happens when they adopt a more Western, processed diet - it can make them especially vulnerable to inflammation, which can cause diseases.

This may offer a theory as to why Indians seem particularly prone to type2 diabetes. A more accurate and far less sensational headline for this study is by the Washington Post : "Cornell study finds some people may be genetically programmed to be vegetarians".

So what do we know about vegetarian diets? A well-balanced vegetarian diet can be exceptionally healthy.

The longest-lived and healthiest people on the planet eat plant-based diets, some including small amounts of animal protein, some not. And it is just as possible to eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet as it is a healthy one.

Dr David Katz, always a voice of sense amid the silliness, described this study in his blog: "The current study looked only at gene frequencies. Not heart disease, not cancer, not death. Despite the insane headlines, the study had nothing to do with death, or disease. It was a study of gene patterns.

"We already know that good vegetarian diets prevent disease, even reverse it, and are in the mix with the most health-promoting dietary options on the planet.

"We know they are good for the planet as well. All of that is established. Designing a study to challenge that would be like conducting a study to see if maybe the Earth is still flat after all."

Bottom line here: ignore the headlines and eat your veges.

Niki Bezzant is editor in chief of Healthy Food Guide.

- Herald on Sunday

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