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Vegetarians Versus Healthy Omnivores

Even after controlling for a variety of dietary and nondietary factors, those eating plant-based diets appear to have lower overall cancer rates.

April 5, 2012 |
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Acknowledgements

Images thanks to Kukuruki and Paul-W.

Transcript

The same reason it was so difficult to study cancer among coffee-drinkers, is the same reason it’s so difficult to study cancer among meateaters. Even if they found lower cancer rates among those eating vegetarian, maybe it’s just because they exercise more, or smoke less, or inhale less diesel fumes because all own a prius.
So the way you get around that is you study a group of healthy meateaters who, for example, smoke just as infrequently as the group of vegetarians you’re trying to study—to equal things out, control for nondietary factors. So you don’t just classify people into meateaters, fish-only eaters, and vegetarians, you adjust for smoking—past smoking, current smoking, the amount of smoking, cigarette smoking, cigar smoking, pipe smoking, alcohol consumption, body mass index, physical activity level, and for women, how many children they’ve had—which can be protective against breast cancer, whether they were on the pill or not. Anything they could think of to factor everything else aside and just focus in on what they were interested in, whether or not one eats meat.
Now controlling for obesity, is not really fair to the vegetarians. We know that vegetarians are significantly more likely to be thin, which we know is protective against cancer, so by comparing vegetarians only to thin meateaters, it undercuts one of the benefits of eating vegetarian. It effectively erases one of the reasons why eating vegetarian may reduce cancer rates. But they weren’t interested in indirect ways in which meat might cause cancer, like meat leading to obesity leading to cancer. They wanted to study meat and cancer more directly.
And to do that you have to handicap the vegetarians even further. Maybe the reason vegetarians are so healthy is not because they eat less meat, but because they eat more plants. So vegetarians were compared to meateaters who on average ate about the same amount of fruits and vegetables every day. It may not have been easy, but they were able to dig up thousands meateaters who ate 4-5 servings of fruits and veggies a day—about as much as the vegetarians were eating.
Again, this put the vegetarians at a comparative disadvantage by removing one of the key benefits of more plant-based diets which is… more plants. By comparing vegetarians to omnivores who don't eat a lot of meat and have a high fruit and vegetable intake, this could reduce the chance of observing lower cancer rates in the vegetarians, but they wanted to isolate out the meat component. So they did, they compared vegetarians only to healthy meateaters with healthier diets, and still found the incidence of all cancers combined was lower among vegetarians.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

I've covered findings from the EPIC studies before in Meat & Multiple MyelomaBowel Movement FrequencyThousands of Vegans StudiedEPIC Study and Low Meat of No Meat?. Tomorrow I'll cover the findings from this paper in more depth and I have a few more videos in the pipeline on it, so stay tuned! And the same diet that may prevent cancer may help treat it too, see Cancer Reversal Through Diet?. For more on plant-based nutrition, see the 101 videos I have on plant-based diets, and hundreds of other videos on more than a thousand subjects. PS: the reference in this video to teasing out the cancer and coffee connection is dealt with in Coffee and Cancer.

For more context, check out my associated blog posts, Poultry and Penis Cancer.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/mgreger/ Michael Greger M.D.

    I’ve covered findings from the EPIC studies before in Meat & Multiple Myeloma, Bowel Movement Frequency, Thousands of Vegans Studied, EPIC Study and Low Meat of No Meat?. Tomorrow I’ll cover the findings from this paper in more depth and I have a few more videos in the pipeline on it, so stay tuned! And the same diet that may prevent cancer may help treat it too, see Cancer Reversal Through Diet?. For more on plant-based nutrition, see the 101 videos I have on plant-based diets, and hundreds of other videos on more than a thousand subjects. PS: the reference in this video to teasing out the cancer and coffee connection is dealt with in Coffee and Cancer.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/hemodynamic/ HemoDynamic

      Yes, interestingly the bowel cancer higher in Vegetarians has me intrigued. Can’t wait for Monday.

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/hemodynamic/ HemoDynamic

        There are obviously some confounding issues that may have caused this but I am holding on to my colonoscope until I hear your beef on this sizzling find. Isn’t that just Offal !-?

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/vegantruth/ vegantruth

    In this study, what are they considering “vegetarians”?
    If vegans were used, then why didn’t they use that term? If dairy/egg eating vegetarians were included, how much animal protein were they eating?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/jnunez39/ jnunez39

      In the research they say that the criteria for being assigned a vegetarian is to not eat “meat, fish, dairy products, and eggs”.

      • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/vegantruth/ vegantruth

        Uhhhh… Then why didn’t they use ” vegan ” rather then vegetarian ? I hate it when people interchange those terms

        • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/andrea/ andrea

          Because a person that only eats veggies and not dairy products….is a vegetarian. If you eat dairy/eggs those are not vegetables so how could you use vegetarians. You guys messed up the terms.

          An omnivore.

          • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/toxins/ Toxins

            As a dietary term, a vegan is defined as someone who does not consume any animal products or byproducts. A vegetarian can still consume dairy or eggs.

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/veganlifestyle/ Veganlifestyle

      Technically speaking, there shouldn’t be a difference between the two groups, but since Vegetarians have no standards, I agree that the distinction should be made. However, since we’re only referring to diet here, and since Vegan isn’t a diet, they should be specifying that they studied those following a plant-based diet. Thank you Oprah and Skinny Bitch (if no one else) for butchering the term Vegan too.

  • http://nutritionfacts.org/members/vegannutritionist/ VeganNutritionist

    The vegetarian group included lacto/ovo vegetarians and pure vegetarians(vegans).

    “4 diet groups were established: meat eaters (those that eat meat), fish eaters (those that do not eat meat but do eat fish), vegetarians (those that do not eat meat or fish but do eat dairy products or eggs or both), and vegans (those that eat no animal products); because of the small number of cancers among vegans, in this article the vegans are included in the vegetarian category.”

    The study states that milk consumption was higher in the nonvegetarian group, but cheese, vegetables, and fruit consumption was higher in the vegetarian group.

    I would very much like to see the pure vegetarian cancer rates from this study. Since I consider cheese to be the worst food someone can consume from a health perspective, I am not all that surprised by this anomaly.

    • Skeptic

      Eggs are bad, bad news too. Vegetarianism is merely a step in the right direction, but seems to leave much to be desired.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-V-Grant/505030063 Chris Ⓥ Grant

    Where is the article talking about the higher incidence of cancer in Vegetarians?

    • Skeptic

      See the “citations” under the video.

  • VeganZ

    Hi!

    Was hoping you could do a video or post on human anatomy and
    physiology.  Sadly we human animals continue our “belief” that we are
    omnivorous.  I especially like Dr. Milton Mills “The Comparative Anatomy
    of Eating”:
    http://www.vegsource.com/news/2009/11/the-comparative-anatomy-of-eating.html 
    but would love to have another link to share from nutritionfacts.org. 

    I
    re-posted the following:
    http://veganzeitgeist.org/2012/02/10/our-beliefs-meat-and-dairy-mad-consumers-the-facts-plant-based-diet/
    because many were not making it to the “What About Me” section :)  Us
    silly humans; our beliefs, and short attention spans… oh yea,
    forgot (memory problems too :), you know that better than most!

    Additionally was also hoping you could comment on the accuracy of human lifespan of 120+ years, that we have approximately one, one thousandths of the hydrochloric acid found in carnivores, and a correlation between mad cow (feeding liquefied animal proteins to herbivores) and our epidemic levels of disease (MS, CJD, etc., because of our erroneous consumption. 

    Thank you, and all the humans working with you, for all you are doing for our bewildered herbivorous herd; all
    life on Mother Earth!

  • Lkr191919

    The conclusion from this study states, “Within the study, the incidence of all cancers combined was lower among vegetarians than among meat eaters, but the incidence of colorectal cancer was higher in vegetarians than in meat eaters.”

    Can you address this issue of colorectal cancer?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=670735069 Tan Truong

       Is this colorectal cancer issue addressed? I can’t seem to find it anywhere on this site.

    • Skeptic

      The study doesn’t speculate about the increase. Cancers in general were only about 12% lower in the vegetarians vice meat eaters. In some ways, the whole study approach is deeply flawed because it doesn’t separate plant based diets (vegans) from vegetarians.

      Dairy products and eggs often are substituted for meat by vegetarians. I often think of them as liquid meat eaters, since dairy and eggs, from a nutritional perspective, are practically interchangeable with meat: no fiber, lots of cholesterol and saturated fat, up regulation of IGF, vitamin and mineral and phytonutrient deficient, etc. By the time you handicap the vegetarians by “correcting” for confounding factors, they’re pretty much the same as meat eaters, hence the very similar cancer outcomes.

      We really need more studies, where whole food vegans are broken out from all the rest to really see what’s happening.

  • Shiri

    I’m not sure I understand the definition of Vegans/Vegetarains vs. Healthy meat eaters (how much meat do they eat?). I eat organic meat once a week, and lots of veg & fruit on a daily basis. I add milk to my coffee and have a few deserts a week containing dairy (I do not consider dairy healthy), so I consider myself as a healthy non Vegan. I also exercise frequently.

    On the other hand I know very non healthy Vegans who eat a lot of processed vegan foods – chips, non dairy chocolate, sugar, serials, soy burgers, etc.

    Therefore I find these terms a bit confusing when used in reseraches. Is it possible to post the desired food that a person needs to eat and not just say Vegan? Also, If I prefer not to take any supplements
    (many vitamins have issues), would meat (organic) once a week be sufficient for B12? What about D? I was not aware that eggs are bad, so thank you for teaching me that.

    • Toxins

      Indeed, a vegan doesn’t equate to healthy, as a vegan can eat french fries, white bread and mock meats all day long and be considered vegan, but they are not necessarily protected from chronic illness. You will never find Dr. Greger advocating any meat, even once a week, nor will he recommend eating any animal product at all.

      Dairy and eggs have many health issues seen with them and judging by your responses, it seems that you eat these things the most. I recommend viewing these videos for research.

      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-acne-promoting-effects-of-milk/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/acne-cancer-connection/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/dairy-sexual-precocity/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/dairy-hormonal-interference/

      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/egg-cholesterol-in-the-diet/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/video/is-one-egg-a-day-too-much/
      http://nutritionfacts.org/2011/08/31/bad-egg/

      The health detriments seen with animal product consumption go much deeper then these videos as seen with increased IGF-1 and endotoxemia.

      • Shiri

        Thanks Toxins, but I’m not sure that my question was answered. Please refer to the China Study (see link below). You can see there “low animal based foods” rather than no animal. The article that is stated above doesn’t define what was the diet of the “Healthy Omnivores” and how much meat/dairy was included, so I cannot really use it as a reference.

        If a diet is strictly vegan, one needs to add B12, D, etc and I’m not sure if this is healthier than eating meat once a week without taking any additions.

        BTW, I never said that dairy is healthy, I eat occasional dairy deserts (or milk in my coffee) since if I already eat desert (which is not healthy anyway…) at least it should be tasty…

        http://web.archive.org/web/20090223222003/http://www.nutrition.cornell.edu/ChinaProject/

        “These diets are much different from the average American diets, containing only about 0-20% animal based foods, while the average American diet is comprised of about 60-80% animal based foods.”

        • Toxins

          Vitamin b12 is a water soluble vitamin and has no harmful side affect. Vitamin D is not unique to vegans as most people need to supplement vitamin D regardless. For these reasons I would still say that including meat, even once a weak, is not at all beneficial. If you would like a model diet take a look at the Okinawans.

          Caloric Restriction, the Traditional Okinawan Diet, and Healthy Aging

          The Diet of the World’s Longest-Lived People and Its Potential Impact on Morbidity and Life Span
          Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1114: 434–455 (2007).

          TABLE 1. Traditional dietary intake of Okinawans and other Japanese circa 1950

          Total calories 1785
          Total weight (grams) 1262
          Caloric density (calories/gram) 1.4
          Total protein in grams (% total calories) 39 (9)
          Total carbohydrate in grams (% total calories) 382 (85)
          Total fat in grams (% total calories) 12 (6)
          Saturated fatty acid 3.7
          Monounsaturated fatty acid 3.6
          Polyunsaturated fatty acid 4.8
          Total fiber (grams) 23

          Food group Weight in grams (% total calories)

          Rice 154 (12)
          Wheat, barley, and other grains 38 (7)
          Nuts, seeds Less than 1 (less than 1)
          Sugars 3 (less than 11)
          Oils 3 (2)
          Legumes (e.g., soy and other beans) 71 (6)

          Fish 15 (1)
          Meat (including poultry) 3 (less than 1)
          Eggs 1 (less than 1)
          Dairy less than 1 (less than 1)

          Sweet potatoes 849 (69)
          Other potatoes 2 (less than1)
          Other vegetables 114 (3)
          Fruit less than 1 (less than 1)
          Seaweed 1 (less than 1)
          Pickled vegetables 0 (0)
          Foods: flavors & alcohol 7 (less than 1)

          Data derived from analysis of U.S. National Archives, archived food records, 1949 and based on survey of 2279 persons.

          Some points

          Their diet was 85% carb, and 6% fat. Sweet potatoes (a Japanese sweet potato) made up almost 70% of their calories. Nuts were less than 1% of calories (the equivalent of 1/10 of an ounce a day) Oil was less than 2% of calories (which is about 1 tsp a day) and sugars were less than 1% of calories (less than a tsp a day)

          The total animal products including fish was less than 4% of calories which is less then 70 calories a day. That is the equivalent of around 2 oz of animal products or less a day.

          This is not the same fish we see today, the fish of today is highly contaminated and is really just an excellent source of pollutants. These pollutants take a very long period of time to eliminate, and accumulation of these pollutants is not the best course. Here is Dr. Greger’s video on the supposed half life

          http://nutritionfacts.org/video/how-fast-can-children-detoxify-from-pcbs/

          • Shiri

            Wow, thanks Toxins. I read a bit about the Okinawan and they are indeed very impressive. The diet looks very healthy, though a bit too hard to follow with
            almost no sugar/sweet… Thanks for sharing this info.

            Regarding the B12 pills, I used to take them a few years ago and my B12 was still too low and I had to take shots. I prefer to get all the vitamins/minerals from whole
            food rather than additions that might not be absorbed properly.

            In general it seems as if all the good diets are summarized to: lots of fruit & veg, legumes and whole grains and nuts. All the rest is not healthy!

            But my theory is that if you want to be able to keep your diet for life, it’s better to allow a bit of the non healthy food. My way is to have a bit of sweet once a day and a day a week (Sabbath) of everything (in addition to the veg & fruit). Hope it helps others

          • Skeptic

            Humans evolved in tropical/sub tropical environments. Most of us now live in temperate zones, with far less daylight, so we need to take D supplements during the winter months in many areas. Likewise, primates in nature get B12 from soil residue on plants they eat and from water in streams, We clean our food and drink sanitized water, so we MUST take B12 supplements. The conditions of modern life are not the same as our evolutionary origins, so we must make a few needed adjustments for optimal health. It is a BIG mistake to not take the several supplements that are deficient under modern conditions.

    • Skeptic

      If you have access to the actual cited studies, they generally describe their usage of the various terms. It varies from study to study, but the details are available. Probably about 20% of the cited studies are available to the public for free on-line. Click the citation link below the video to see what is available.

  • OP

    IF I AM READING THE STUDY IT SEEMS TO SAY THAT EATING MEAT OR PROCESSED MEAT PROVIDES A LOWER INCIDENCE OF LYMPHOMA. aM I READIGN THIS WRONG?

    • Skeptic

      I read them both and didn’t see that. I did see where one or two types of cancer increased for vegetarians in the study, but overall rates were slightly lower for vegetarians, even after handicapping the vegetarians with confounding factor “corrections.”

  • Skeptic

    I’m reading through the cited study. Here’s a real gem: “…because of the small number of cancers among vegans, in this article the vegans are included in the vegetarian category.”

    Uh oh folks, the plant based diet practitioners are so cancer resistant, we have to be grouped with people who do get cancer so we show up on the stats!

    • Thea

      That made me smile! :-)

  • http://www.naturallifeenergy.com/ Aqiyl Aniys

    I realize this video is dated now but my thought is that I am glad we have continued forward and today more and more people are understanding the value of a plant based diet. We still have a long way to go though.