There's some interesting research being reported today about the health impact of a meatless diet. Specifically, an Austrian study found that people who ate a vegetarian diet had 50 percent more heart attacks and 50 percent more cancer diagnoses than those who ate meat.
A little shocking, right?
The debate over whether or not being a vegetarian is healthier than being a carnivore is ancient, but for those on both sides, the scientific evidence thus far has been largely frustrating. I think this is mostly because it is rare to find researchers willing to say that "X causes Y so you should never/always do Z." (I wrote about this recently for The 2x2 Project, specifically with regard to the science - or lack thereof - for gluten-free diet recommendations in non-Celiac patients).
Perhaps more than research on many other health topics, diet research is of high public interest and often becomes a source of intense, heated debate. Diet is personal, and it's something that is relatively within our control, especially if we have the financial means to change it. Everyone wants a "magic pill," as Dr. Paul Crane, an researcher who has studied the potential link between blood glucose levels and dementia, told me in an interview for the gluten-free diet story. In reality, that "magic pill" is hard to find. Unfortunately, the frustration that stems from this reality sometimes leads to extrapolating diet advice from studies that aren't necessarily built to give it.
The media plays a big role in this, of course. Since people are drawn to diet-related cures and remedies for the varying things that ail us, it makes sense that when a study like this one, and the one before it that ostensibly came to the opposite conclusion, come along, they make headlines.
But it's important to note that despite what some of those headlines say — PolicyMic's "Scientists Prove What We All Secretly Think About Vegetarians" feels particularly sensational — the study itself may not say that at all.
To be fair, though, their story points out a bit farther down that while the researchers found that the vegetarians they studied experienced generally worse health and had higher levels of anxiety and depression, they also hypothesized that the subjects might be vegetarians because of these pre-existing health issues.
And the most interesting piece to me: the researchers noted that their vegetarian subjects also had "poor health care practices," such as failing to obtain preventative care and avoiding vaccines. Could that say more about the mindset of these particular vegetarians than about what a meatless diet is doing to their bodies? Hopefully the researchers will pursue this question further.
I think PolicyMic and sites like it take an important step in actually linking to the studies they're writing about, so if people are skeptical or simply curious, they can take a look at the data for themselves. But as journalists we have had to come to accept that a great number of the people who see the headline will either simply retweet without clicking through at all, or read only the headline and first few paragraphs of the story. They don't have time to read to the end of the story, let alone attempt to parse a long medical journal article; that's why we're presenting the material in a more easily-digestible format. We just need to be careful that the facts — inconclusive as they may be — aren't lost in the process.