This is a critique of a segment on “Fox and Friends Weekend” reporting on a vegetarian versus meat research study on April 5, 2014. They interviewed Erin Tolbert, a nurse practitioner. They all gave a totally wrong impression, a disservice to the watching public.
A Cross-Sectional Study Does Not Show Cause-and-Effect
The Fox News Anna Kooiman started, “Vegetarians are less healthy and less happy than meat-eaters.”
That implies a causation. The article clearly denied that conclusion when it stated, “Therefore, no statements can be made whether the poorer health in vegetarians in our study is caused by their dietary habit… We cannot state whether a causal relationship exists.” This study was a cross-sectional study. These are taken at a single point in time, do not manipulate variables, and do not reveal cause-and-effect. They merely show an association. It is entirely possible that some sicker subjects had turned to a vegetarian diet to try to get regain their health. We don’t know.
Further, nowhere in the study is the word ‘happy’ or ‘happier’ used!
The Study Had 330 Vegetarians and Only 30 Were Vegans
The study only studied 330 vegetarians plus the meat-eaters. That vegetarian group was a mixture of 9% vegans, and 36% who used milk and eggs, and 55% who ate fish and/or milk and eggs. That means only about 30 people from the vegetarian group were actually vegans. That is way too small of a sample size to draw any conclusions as concerning vegans.
Worse yet, vegans are not all the same. Many vegans still eat sugar, vegetable oils and processed foods, which makes many of them sick. It is unknown if there was even a single Austrian in this study who ate a varied, whole, plant-based diet with minimal oils (the optimal diet).
1.5% More Cancer is Not Way More!
Tucker Carlson said, “They are also WAY more prone to allergies and cancer risk.”
The study showed that 30.6% of Austrian vegetarians suffered from allergies, and 20.3% of the next worse group suffered likewise. The study showed that 4.8% of vegetarians suffered from cancer, and 3.3% of the next worse group so suffered. So, actually only 1.5% (4.8 – 3.3 = 1.5) more vegetarians had cancer. That is not WAY more!
You Cannot Conclude That Meat Is Good For You
Clayton Morris asked Erin, “So bottom line, vegetarians are less healthy than meat-eaters?”
Erin replied, “Right”
This statement implies causation. Again, the report emphatically denies that any causation is claimed. Further, it implies that these Austrian adults are similar to the American audience.
Risks of Vegetarianism Were Misleading
The screen display showed:
Risks of Vegetarianism:
- Higher rates of asthma
- Increased cancer risk
- More prone to allergies
- Poorer overall mental health
Here are the facts: 4.8% of vegetarians had asthma and 4.5% of the next worse group had it. I would not even mention that tiny difference. 4.8% of vegetarians had cancer and 3.3% of the next worse group had it (again, only 1.5% more). 30.6% of vegetarians had allergies and 20.3 of the next worse group had them. 9.4% of vegetarians had mental illness (anxiety disorder or depression) and 5.8% of the next worse group had it.
Vegetarians Scored Significantly Worse on Only Seven of 18 Chronic Health Conditions
In all, there were 18 chronic conditions studied. Of those, vegetarians scored significantly worse on only 7. For the other 11 conditions, vegetarians scored roughly in the same league, or even better.
Risks of Meat-Rich Diet – Another Way To Spin This News
If another person had written the news report, they could have accurately stated the following (although I disagree with this deceptive method of relative results reporting):
Risks of a Diet Rich in Meat:
- 35% higher risk of hypertension
- 50% higher risk of apoplectic stroke
- 21% higher risk of arthritis
- 305% of the likelihood of urinary incontinence
Erin said, “Vegetarian diet is lacking in certain nutrients. Over 90% of vegetarians are vitamin B-12 deficient. The only way you can get it is from a meat source.”
It is true that vegetarians are generally lacking in vitamin B-12. However, most meat eaters are likewise. The most knowledgeable nutritionists recommend that everyone take a vitamin B-12 supplement. Vitamin B-12 does not actually come from the meat itself, but rather from a bacteria in the colon that accompanies the feces contaminating the meat. Years ago, it is believed that people got this vitamin from incompletely washed vegetables. My preference is a B-12 supplement.
Plants Provide Nearly All the Nutrients That You Need
Clayton Morris said, “Is the quality of the nutrients that you are getting from the meat that you are having then to get, as a vegetarian, get all these supplements, take all of these pills, when you are getting those nutrients right from meat?”
Erin said, “The natural source is always the best.”
Clayton’s statement is hard to follow but I get his point. That was not claimed in this study. The facts are that you can get all the nutrients you need from a varied, whole plant-based diet, with the exception of vitamin B-12 and vitamin D, which you make from sunshine or get from a supplement.
Erin’s statement is true: the natural source is always the best. And, the natural source of vitamins and minerals is actually from the plants that the animals previously ate! If you eat animals, you get those secondhand.
Non-heme Iron Is the Safest Form
She mentioned iron, vitamin D, zinc that you get when you eat meat.
The healthiest kind of iron is the non-heme form. That is what plants have. Our bodies can process that and assimilate and use whatever amount they need and discard the remainder. On the other hand, meats have the heme form of iron. Our bodies absorb all of that. The problem is, you can easily get an overdose and many people do. That is why iron supplements are potentially very dangerous and should only be taken after careful medical advice. You would have to take tests and do the analysis to get the correct amount of iron, if meat is your source.
The Fatal Error – Equating Vegans and Others With Vegetarians
Tucker Carlson said, “So the old wive’s tale proves true that vegetarians are sickly, pale, feeble. Meat eaters are hearty, healthy, and happy, like there is some truth in that.”
The problem with statements like that are that the public doesn’t know how vegetarians are different from vegans, from oil-free vegans, from whole-food plant eaters. The public and likely the show hosts equated these. Yet, studies show there is often a significant difference in the health results.
Erin said, “There really is. The study highlights the importance of having meat in your diet.”
That is wrong. Rather, it highlights the difference for Austrian adults for the four specific groups they studied. It does not in any way claim that meat eaters are healthier than vegans, etc. Again, neither does it show any causation.
Totally Wrong Numbers Given For Sensational Reasons
Clayton Morris said, “This number really jumps out at me. Vegetarians have a 50% increase of BOTH heart attacks and cancer.”
Erin replied, Yes.
The study showed that 1.5% of vegetarians had cardiac infarction and 1.5% of the next worse group had the condition. Those values are identical! It showed that 4.8% of vegetarians had cancer and 3.3% of next worse group had it. That is 45%. relative, but only an absolute 1.5%. Absolute differences are more meaningful and less deceptive than relative differences.
The Report Does Not Mention Happiness Anywhere
Tucker Carlson said, “The people that ate a ton of meat were the happier.”
Erin replied, “Yes, they were.”
The study nowhere mentions either happy, nor happier. (I searched the entire document for happ*.) If Tucker and Erin were talking about mental illness (anxiety disorder or depression) then, the vegetarians had 9.4% and the next group down had 5.8% of subjects suffering from it. If they were talking about Psychological Health, the vegetarians scored 16.50 and the best group scored 16.88, clearly not a noteworthy difference.
The news panel seemed to equate vegans with the vegetarians group. They didn’t even mention whole plant-food eaters. Nor, did they mention the no oil whole, plant-based food eaters, which has been shown to be clearly the healthiest diet by a preponderance of the evidence.
Introduction Negates Whole News Story
The second sentence of the report recounts other scientific evidence that negates what the whole three minute segment touted.
It is very interesting that the second sentence in the report’s introduction states, “Studies have shown [7 references given] a vegetarian diet to be associated with a lower incidence of hypertension, cholesterol problems, some chronic degenerative diseases, coronary artery disease, type II diabetes, gallstones, stroke, and certain cancers.” They further say the literature generally shows a vegetarian diet tends to be associated with health benefit. Their single study is an outlier study.
What Is the Moral of the Story?
The moral is to not go to news anchors to learn about nutritional studies. They haven’t been trained in how to read and report scientific study facts. They are tempted to spin it into a sensational news story at the tragic cost of accuracy. It is no wonder the public is so utterly confused.
Further, the moral is to look at the actual research study to see what the researchers really said. Then one should make an evaluation of the quality of the study and who funded it. Also, one should look at the preponderance of the evidence from many studies as published in quality, peer-reviewed, scientific journals.
I really feel sorry for the people who may have been thinking about going on a healthy whole, plant-based, no oil diet, and then they heard this three minute segment, and were deceived into believing there is no benefit in making such a drastic change. Unfortunately, they will join the multitudes that will likely suffer extensively and then die prematurely of a chronic disease instead of old age.
Read the research article:
PLoS ONE 9(2): e88278. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088278
Published February 7, 2014
If you care to watch the Fox and Friends Weekend video, it is here.