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Vegetarian food, good for your health? What says, and what science does not say

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Vegetarian food, good for your health? What says, and what science does not say

To do without meat or any product from an animal is a strong trend now. What does science say about these new diets?

Vegetarian diets are fashionable. But do we really know if they are a panacea for living old and healthy or, on the contrary, pose a serious risk to those who adopt them? There is a lot of confusion on the part of the general public and, on the scientists’ side; it is not very clear either.

Why? Because nutrition is a complex discipline: it is not easy to find a simple answer on a subject as vast as the relationship between a range of particular dietary practices and health, taken in all its dimensions.

To this intrinsic difficulty, is added a problem peculiar to our modern society: the scientific information is mistreated there, the emitters can be not very competent, the media diffuse fragmentary information, often biased and misinterpreted … De facto little interpretable . Often, we put forward a very particular study without mentioning the hundred that preceded it. There is no reference to expert consensus from national agencies (such as ANSES) or international initiatives.

If science has, in a way, dropped the flag, it is that the subject of vegetarianism is today political and societal. There are two reasons for this, and first of all, a cyclical one.

An unsustainable food model

We are currently witnessing a growing challenge to the food model of industrialized societies: it is not sustainable from the point of view of health. Our bloated modern diet has increased the risk for our heart, our vessels, our brain… while our consumption of animal protein was twice that of the post-Second World War era. But also, and above all, the sustainability of the model raises questions for the preservation of the environment. From this point of view, the role of animal products in diets has become problematic, burning, to make a necessary analogy with the climate emergency.

Another fundamental reason for this difficulty in dealing with the subject is the fact that the consumption of animal products has always been associated with, say, representations of the world. Vegetarianism is an “ism”. The religions and many philosophical schools of thought have always had something to say on the consumption of animal products. To speak of the eviction of meat is to question the representation of the human in the universe.

Saint-Hugues in the refectory of the Carthusians. Saint-Hugues in the refectory of the Carthusians notes that the monks eat meat during Lent. Francisco de Zurbarán / Wikimedia

More concretely, this is to question the relationship to the animal in society, and this relationship changes with society. From a society in the development phase, where animal products were useful, expensive, and privileged by the people who had the economic resources to access them, we moved to a world where these products became an object of mistrust, sometimes the symbol of a model of society that one wants to question. Witnesses, discussions on the animal cause, the effects on the environment, the effects on health…

So, for or against animal products? Both clans give voice. Even in the scientific world, as soon as we approach the subject, we can see that we are abandoning scientific rationality. You have to have a point of view, the easiest to summarize, so the simplest possible!

Transition to the plant

And yet, the subject is too important for us to be satisfied with the present situation. It is crucial because these transitions of food patterns that we perceive, from meat food to vegetable, seem inevitable. They are in fact already started, with the decline in meat consumption and the development of a “neo-vegetarian” product market. The flexitarienne foresight is strong.

“How to accompany an inevitable inflection of the consumption of animal products?”
From the point of view of nutritional science, two questions arise; one on nature, the other on the degree of change. The first is not “should you become vegetarian or vegan?”, But “how to become vegetarian or vegan ” in those who wish, for reasons of their own. By “how” is meant: what are the nutritional pitfalls and how to avoid them, that is, how to compose a diet of this type that is the best for health. The second question is that of “flexitarianism”, that is to say the degree of adherence of our eating behavior to a particular model: how to accompany an unavoidable inflection of the consumption of animal products or – and it is possible -being a more positive vision – how to increase the share of plant products. By “how” we mean: how to compose a diet with a stronger plant base that is the best for health.

A collective work on vegetarianism

The scientific process can help us out of speeches to make reason triumph over emotion. For that we must examine things with rigor and in their entirety. This is the purpose of the collective work that we have conducted, mobilizing a hundred international academics to produce a book of 45 chapters by proposing a complete vision, we propose a balanced vision. The book discusses both the overall benefit of herbal diets on health; and the risk of illness and problems regarding the status of certain nutrients in people who consume these diets, considering the issue across the entire range of vegetarian diets.

We first discuss the links between food choices for animal or plant sources and the socio-behavioral characteristics of individuals; how it can vary according to the cultures or religions and the places of the world; and how these choices are articulated in terms of general transitions and other facets of sustainability. Then, we seek to provide a comprehensive view of the relationships between plant-based diets and health and disease prevention, presenting multiple perspectives and levels of analysis. Thus, we first describe the relationships between health and important characteristics of herbal diets, as of course, but not only, the consumption of fruits and vegetables and that of meat.

To follow, 12 chapters provide an analysis of the relationships between plant-based and vegetarian diets and a large number of health and disease consequences. Another part makes it possible to explain to what extent the question is different, even very specific, in populations of varying age or physiological status. Finally, the last part of the book, in 11 chapters, analyzes the relationship at the scale of nutrients and substances whose contribution is linked to the part of the plant / animal source in the diet.

Timely but vigilant transitions

“It is necessary to pay particular attention to schemes that exclude categories of products”
We will not summarize here the 900 pages of this work, but we must evoke what this state of the art says transitions in progress. A plant-dominated diet is associated with many benefits to the health of populations. Nevertheless, it is necessary to pay particular attention to regimes that exclude categories of products, especially as eviction is important and all the more so as the category of population concerned is in a state of fragility. Thus, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet (that is to say, excluding “only” meat and fish) in adults must be properly reasoned but does not pose great difficulty, unlike that of a vegan diet in children.

In short, for those who wish, we should not just stop eating meat or fish or other animal foods, but thoroughly review the entire diet. For fragile populations, such as children, follow-up by a health professional seems essential to the practice of a vegan diet that would be set up in an environment that is not fully aware of the strong nutritional constraints. At a more general scale of the entire population and its “pro-flexitarian” evolution, it must be said that this evolution should bring a health benefit by making it possible to rebalance the profiles of the diets, but, again, we must not give in to simplistic recipes.

A fast food vegan Eric Chan / Wikimedia, CC BY

I will mention two easy shortcuts, often heard. The first: “there is less to eat meat and other animal products”. No. First because there is no “there is only” in the so complex field of food. Then, because if you eat less, you eat more and if we only eat more of what we ate before, it is very unlikely that it will lead in the right direction. For example, a sharp decrease in the consumption of animal products should be accompanied by an increase in protein-rich plant foods (such as legumes).

A second shortcut: “There is only to eat vegetal, vegetal is good”. Plant is not synonymous with good for health. A diet that focuses on crisps, ketchup, sodas, sugar-glazed breakfast cereals, and bread sandwiched with hazelnut spread is a plant-based diet. These are dishes that can be labeled “vegan”.

You will understand that it is not such a diet that must be favored, that it is not the one that is associated with a health benefit, but rather a varied diet, rich in raw products, architecture on a dominant vegetable consisting of fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, complete grain products… The eviction of animal products is not useful nutritionally, and it certainly complicates the situation, as we said above. However, animal products must be confined to their place, which is not that of the base of the food pyramid. Plant dominance allows for healthier and more sustainable diets.

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