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April 14, 2014

Are Vegetarians More Healthy or Less Healthy Than Meat-Eaters?

vegetarians more healthy
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Are Vegetarians More Healthy or Less Healthy Than Meat-Eaters?

Which of these two studies on vegetarians should your believe?  This one, “Vegetarians Live Longer Than Meat-Eaters, Study Finds“? Or this one, “Vegetarians Are Less Healthy and Have a Lower Quality of Life Than Meat-Eaters, Scientists Say“?

Just a tad confusing, isn’t it? About opposite as conclusions as you get. We see that a lot with medical studies – studies showing conflicting results. Are vegetarians more healthy or is just a myth?

This post addresses more than the vegetarian question and is more a commentary on medical research.

Conflicting Medical Studies

Have you noticed in even years there’s a link between caffeine and breast cancer and in odd years there is no link – or is it the other way around?  Maybe it’s not the caffeine, but the aluminum found in soft drink cans, or possibly the sugar or artificial sweetener that’s the problem.

The point being the cause of given condition may be something that wasn’t considered or taken into account by the study.

You will always find studies that contradict one another in medicine. But, usually the bulk of the data favors one opinion over another. Part of it has to do with the nature of medical research. Some of it, though, I believe is because medicine isn’t a pure science. The scientific method works best for pure sciences and medicine is not. It’s certainly not as pure a science as we want it to be, like it to be, or think it is.

Medicine: Art or Science?

Here’s my view. Anything that involves people is an art. And, an art is subjective. Teaching is an art and practicing law is an art. Practicing medicine or any allied health profession, however, is both an art and science, but I would argue more art than science.

Mathematics and physics – those are sciences. And, you will always get the same conclusion or nearly so in those fields. But, when you deal with people it’s hard to predict what answer you will get. And, that’s because we are all different having different genetic codes and are affected by the environment differently.

During our first week of medical school we viewed a film by Dr. Morris Massey called What You Are Is Where You Were When. It’s an interesting title that should get you thinking.

We were never told why we were being shown the film, but I suspect it was to stress upon us that we are all different and as budding physicians we should remember that. We are affected by events common to all of us (September 11) as well as significant events that we each experience individually (perhaps the death of a parent when young or a serious illness of our own). So we don’t all follow the “rules of science” the same way.

I always found it interesting that if you drive through any reasonably size town you will usually find a building that offices physician practices. Invariably that building is referred to as the Medical Arts Building or Medical Arts Professional Building, or some variation. It’s not called the Medical Science Building unless it’s found on the campus of a medical school in which case the building has more to do with training medical students than housing practicing physicians.

So we seem to intuitively recognize that medicine is an art except when it comes to medical research where we want and expect concrete and definitive results. We want rules to live by – but sometimes they are just not there.

We are 8 billion individuals on this planet. That means there are 8 billion different physiologies. Not everyone is going to respond to the same treatment whether it be nutrition or medication.

We want to practice cookie cutter medicine. It frees us from having to think. But, life doesn’t work that way. Many times life is gray and not black and white. And, that’s the nature of medical research.

Common Sense

Whenever I see conflicting conclusions in medical research I default to common sense as much as possible to guide my decision making.

Common sense tells me there is a reason why we were born with canine teeth – because it’s ok to eat meat. That doesn’t mean you have to eat meat to be healthy. It just means you don’t have to avoid it to be healthy.

I’m not sure one diet is better than another for every individual. We know that eskimos eat lots of fatty fish and get practically no heart disease despite all the fat. And, African tribesman graze on nuts and berries and they too get practically no heart disease.

The one thing that is consistent with all healthy diets is they all involve as little sugar as possible other than that found naturally in food. Get rid of the sugar and it probably does not matter much what you eat as long as you get enough of the healthy fats and enough protein.

Common sense tells me that if hormones were bad we would see far more disease before the age of 40 when hormone levels are higher, not after age 40 when hormone levels decline past critical threshold levels. In fact, teenagers, who have the highest hormone levels, would be the most unhealthy group in society if hormones were harmful, but they are not.

Common sense tells me it is more wise to prevent disease through healthy nutrition and exercise than to treat chronic disease with medications – medications that are studied and approved in isolation, but typically prescribed in clusters – clusters that have not been studied.

You will never see a study on the safety and efficacy of the combined use of Lipitor, Lexapro, Lodine, Labetalol, Levaquin, and Lunesta. Yet, it does not stop us from prescribing them all together – does it? But, there’s no science to support the combined use of that cluster of drugs or any commonly prescribed cluster of mediations.

In the end the practice of medicine is not driven by science as much as we might think or expect. It’s practice is kind of gray just like life. It’s practice should be individualized for each patient – because we’re all different.

Here’s my two cents – common sense. If you want to eat meat – eat it. And, if you don’t, then don’t.

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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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