It’s been a while since I’ve talked about how the media covers science, but this brouhaha over whether or not a vegetarian diet can kill you seems like too good of an opportunity to miss. (This is titled Part 2 because I wrote about some studies on vegetarianism on this blog exactly two years ago today. Whoa.)
Last week, the New York Post and others reported that a Cornell University study showed that long-term vegetarianism can lead to a genetic mutation that makes people more likely to develop colon cancer and heart disease.
The problem? The study didn’t say that.
On Friday, Vice published this takedown of the coverage of the study, talking to the actual researchers who conducted it. What a novel idea! The researchers did, in fact, find that long-term vegetarians have a gene variant – not a mutation caused by vegetarianism, but a variant that may have evolved in the genes of vegetarian cultures, such as that of India. This variant means these people produce synthetic versions of different fatty acids. An overabundance of fatty acids = inflammation, according to these researchers, so, in fact, people with this genetic variance are better off sticking with a vegetarian diet. If they don’t, they could overload on omega-3s and omega-6s and suffer from inflammation and, potentially, disease. This is complicated, so it’s easy to see why many publications looking for a headline didn’t quite understand it.
What does it actually mean in practice? It seems to be more anthropological than medical. “Our claim is that, to put it simply: you need to have a diet that is matched to your genes,” one of the researchers told Vice.
As I learned when reporting this big feature last year, genetics is a very complex field of study. It is easy to get wrong. I actually made a mistake in the initial version of my story because I was confused about the way a specific gene therapy worked. I fixed the mistake, and I didn’t write a sensational headline about it, but what I’m saying is that I understand. This stuff is tough. It’s so important though, and we have to do better.
The Vice story came to another persuasive conclusion as to why so many publications got this wrong: they don’t like vegetarians. As a person who was a vegetarian for more than three years, I have to say I can believe it!