Vegetarians and vegans are not better people. But mostly they are slimmer and healthier than meat eaters. Scientific studies have also found other differences – they even affect the psyche.
There are a number of points in favor of less meat on our plates. From a health perspective, experts recommend a maximum of 600 grams per week. FOCUS online gives an overview of what studies say about meat consumption.
On average, every German eats 150 grams of meat and meat products every day. That doesn’t sound excessive, but it clearly exceeds the maximum 600 grams per week that the German Society for Nutrition finds acceptable. Many consumers are also significantly higher. It is these “heavy meat eaters” who are mentioned in the studies on the harmful effects of meat consumption.
But even among those who eat a lot of meat, there are differences: If you eat a lot of unprocessed meat, and at the same time it is high in fiber and low in sugar, you have a low risk of disease. This is the case with the Paleo diet.
The Mediterranean diet is considered by experts to be the best nutritional method in the world, and has been for two decades. Lots of vegetables, fish and olive oil end up on the plate, but little meat and processed foods. In comparative studies, vegetarians and vegans do not do well, but people who eat little meat.
But you can also say with a clear conscience with Tilmann Kühn, nutritional epidemiologist at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg: “If you eat a fully vegetarian diet, your body is not missing anything. On the contrary, according to scientific findings, a vegetarian diet is actually very healthy.” With one small caveat: “Less meat” only makes sense if the calorie advantage is not filled with pizza, biscuits or imitation meat.
Numerous studies have shown that the biggest meat fans usually do not have good eating habits either. Even disregarding the nutritional value of individual foods, a diet high in meat and sausages, as well as sugar, white flour, and saturated fats from processed foods is unhealthy. Because healthy foods such as vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains or nuts are definitely not enough.
In the laboratory it can be determined how certain nutrients affect human cells. Human studies don’t work that way. The health comparison “meat eaters versus vegetarians” is only possible in observational studies. Their conclusions are only an approximation of reality. Too many factors play a role in health to reduce the question to schnitzel and tofu. For example: Is a chain-smoking vegan healthier than an athletic meat-eater?
Epidemiological studies can never conclusively prove that meat consumption is unhealthy. And it is also not conclusively clear which individual ingredients are harmful to health.
Beef, pork, lamb or sheep provide the so-called red meat. It is said to cause cardiovascular disease and vascular problems. For US researcher Stanley Hazen from the Cleveland Clinic, a metabolite of the carnitine contained in red meat is responsible for this. To prove this, he had 113 subjects eat 250 grams of steak every day for four weeks. A two-week break was followed by four weeks with a corresponding amount of (white) poultry meat and finally a meat-free month.
The result, published in the European Heart Journal, showed a significant 3-fold increase in TMAO plasma levels during the steak weeks. TMAO arises during carnitine metabolism and is a risk marker for arterial calcification in the vessels. The poultry and vegetable diet resulted in a drop in plasma concentrations in the test subjects.
Red meat is also directly or indirectly involved in the development of cancer. For example, studies by the DKFZ have shown that people who eat a lot of red meat have increased biomarkers of certain roasting substances, such as those produced when roasting and grilling, in their blood. These people had an increased risk of developing colon cancer.
In the Europe-wide EPIC large-scale study, 519,000 test persons were examined to find out the connection between diet and cancer. The results show that red meat can increase the risk of colon cancer. According to this, the risk of the disease increases by almost 50 percent if the daily meat consumption is 100 grams above the recommended amount. The same amount of sausage products even increases the risk by 70 percent.
The risk of stomach cancer is also associated with heavy meat consumption. In people infected with the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, the risk increases fivefold.
There are various theories as to why red meat is so problematic. The so-called iron load hypothesis is based on the fact that red meat contains a comparatively high amount of iron. This so-called heme iron has a high bioavailability, unlike iron from plant food, and thus gets into the organism in larger quantities. It has long been suspected that high levels of iron in the blood increase the risk of cancer. However, this theory has not yet been proven by studies.
Vegetarian foods contain fiber, which has a positive effect on the microbiome in the gut. Vegans have a lot of them. In addition to fruit and vegetables, lactic acid foods such as yoghurt also support the intestinal flora. Vegetarians often consume these. Researchers at the University of New York have confirmed that vegans and vegetarians have more protective types of gut bacteria than meat eaters.
Meat also becomes a cancer risk as a result of the preparation and processing: When meat is heated to high temperatures, several potentially harmful substances are formed at the same time, including so-called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), and nitrosamines are also formed when cured. These substances can promote the development of cancer, above all they increase the risk of colon cancer. Methods such as curing and strong heating are used particularly with industrially processed meat, including sausage and ham. Accordingly, processed meat products are particularly unhealthy.
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences (MPI CBS) and the Leipzig University Hospital examined almost 9,000 people to see what connections there are between body and psyche on the one hand and not eating animal products on the other. regardless of age, gender and level of education.
The result of the physical effect: the less food of animal origin was on the menu, the lower the average body mass index (BMI) and thus the body weight. “Above all, excessively high-fat and high-sugar products make you fat. They stimulate the appetite and delay the feeling of satiety. If you do without animal foods, you consume fewer such products on average,” explains Evelyn Medawar, first author of the work.
With regard to the psychological effects of the meatless diet, the Leipzig study found no particular susceptibility to neuroses in vegetarians. The head of the study, Veronica Witte, says: “Previous analyzes had found that more neurotic people were generally more likely to omit certain groups of foods. We focused solely on avoiding animal products and could not observe any correlation.” No connection was found between a predominantly plant-based diet and depressive moods. There were indications of this in earlier studies as well.
However, the researchers did find a difference in one of the defining factors of personality: extroversion versus introversion. People who eat mostly plant-based foods are more introverted than those who eat mostly animal products. The authors of the study have not yet given an explanation for this.
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