Evolutionary Psychiatry

Posted: June 2, 2014 at 6:00 pm


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One of the primary messages out of public health agencies and nutrition gurus from Walter Willett to Michael Pollan is to eat more plants. And, indeed, in many studies, vegetarian* diets are associated with better cardiovascular health, lower BMI, and better health behaviors (less likely to smoke, drink, and participate in shady Rock and Roll activities).

*In most of these studies, vegetarian does not mean vegan, but usually includes the addition of dairy and eggs, and in some cases, also fish and chicken. Many of these studies use the metric of what people self-identify as, rather than what people actually eat. And the large ones are cross-sectional observational studies, which don't give us causation.

I tweeted the paper yesterday, proving that there's nothing a paleo-leaning audience loves more than a study inconsistent with the notion that vegetarian diets are the elixir of eternal health and happiness, at least for humans.

There was also a little twitter skirmish of vegetarian protest. "Correlation doesn't mean causation" one told me. (Yes indeedy! That's why I used the word 'correlates'). Another accused me of being misleading #shame:

I'm happy to let each of you in the twitterverse determine how misleading I am. It would be too cumbersome to define each verb each and every time I use them in 140 characters. Let me qualify that I'm sure there are happy and healthy vegetarians out there, and all my best to continued health and happiness; be sure to get your B12 from somewhere!

Anyway, the researchers did a decent job of getting a nice cross section of people in Austria from all levels of health and socioeconomic classes. Then they pulled out all 343 "vegetarians" (which were vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians, and lacto-ovo-pescatarians) and matched them with folks from three other self-identified groups that we shall call the virtuous carnivores (lots of fruits and veggies+ meat), the carnivores who eat less meat, and the shameless meat-eaters. Then the researchers measured (or asked about) a lot of health factors using trained interviewers. Body mass index, smoking, alcohol use, how many times a person visited the doctor, whether they got their preventative health care, and what sort of medical conditions and health complains they had.

After a lot of number-crunching, the results were as follows: Self-identified vegetarians had poorer mental health (defined as depression and anxiety), poorer overall health, and poorer quality of life. The other finding was that BMI correlated linearly with the consumption of animal fat (with the shameless carnivores having the highest BMI, the vegetarians the lowest).

What can we learn from this study? Are vegetarians are more likely to be neurotic sick people looking for dietary cures for what ails them, thus come out of the study looking more skinny, unhappy, and unsatisfied? Or are vegetarian diets nutritionally bereft leading to health problems, mental health problems in particular? We will never be able to get that answer from a study of this design.

The Mediterranean diet, as always, has more consistent data for positive benefits for mental and physical health. I tend to think that the diet with a bit of variety and the least processed food will be the healthiest and simplest to explain.

Read more here:
Evolutionary Psychiatry

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Written by grays |

June 2nd, 2014 at 6:00 pm