Meat versus a vegetarian diet

Friday, June 8, 2007
Whether our diet should contain meat, veggies or a bit of both has always been a hot topic. But if we cut out meat, would we still be healthy?

The test

Blood tests are a great way to find out if we're feeding our bodies the right food — so we've we enlisted five people with very different eating habits to help us.

  • Mark Berriman is a strict vegetarian and the head of the Vegetarian Society of NSW. Although he eats animal products like milk and eggs, a dodgy lamb korma in India 20 years ago saw him swear off meat forever. "I've been looking after my health for a long time now in terms of my diet and exercise, so I think I'm going to go, hopefully, pretty well."

  • Harley Johnstone is an extreme vegan. The 29-year-old endurance cyclist went cold turkey on poultry and meat six years ago and is now a total fruit and nut fan. "I wanted more so I went raw and I haven't looked back since."

    His vegan diet excludes any kind of meat product whatsoever, so that means that eggs, cheese and dairy are out.

  • Nathan Smith is completely at the opposite end of the spectrum — he's our extreme meat-eater and butcher. He tried giving meat up once, but couldn't stay off the cattle truck. "I lost about 15 kilos. I just lost too much weight so I went back on it."

    Nathan gets through a staggering half a kilo of meat a day!

  • Jaime Selva's also a butcher, but he only eats lean meat about four times a week. "The best thing I like about meat is the flavour and nutrients it gives me to get through my day."

  • Edwina Searle is our last candidate she's all about balance — Edwina eats a combo of meat, fruit and veggies. "I don't believe in an all or nothing kind of diet. I think you've got to have your protein, you've got to have minerals and vitamins from other sources and we're made to eat meat."

So whose diet is the healthiest? Well, regardless of what our volunteers think — their blood tells the true story.

We checked their cholesterol for heart health and compared their levels of iron, zinc, protein and Vitamin B12 — which are all essential ingredients for long term health.

Dietitian Susie Burrelloversaw the test and was especially concerned about the non-meat eaters: "They are eliminating a large number of food groups, so the vitamins B12, iron, zinc are again at risk, so they're the two that we'll be looking at most closely to make sure they aren't at risk of any nutrient deficiencies."


So how did our candidates go with their blood tests?

"Well, the good news is everything is completely normal and you're a picture of health according to your blood test," says Susie.

Now remember, he mainly eats lean cuts of meat about four times a week.

"Your cholesterol is all normal, your iron, your B12, your zinc, as we would expect from a regular meat-eater, again all normal and everything's looking pretty good. You're pretty fit and healthy at the moment," says Susie.

So it seems lean is clean but what of our other carnivore?

This blokes eats just about anything with a pulse — three to four kilos a week of meat regardless of whether it's lean, fat or chunky.

"Unfortunately your cholesterol is abnormally high. So fatty minces and sausages really do add a significant amount of saturated fats to your dietary intake which could be directly impacting on your cholesterol level," says Susie.

Normal cholesterol levels range from 3.9 to 5.5, but Nathan's is already 5.6 which is a wake up call.

"I will change my diet a bit. I will look at eating more walnuts and fish oil and looking at lowering the cholesterol and cutting the fat out a bit more seriously now," says Nathan.

Now it's onto our vegetarians.

He eats animal products like milk and eggs — it's meat Mark avoids.

"The fantastic thing to note with your results is that your HDL cholesterol which is the good cholesterol, the type that clears out the bad cholesterol in the blood stream, is really high, abnormally high, which means that you're pretty healthy so you're in really good nick," says Susie.

That's a huge tick for a balanced vegetarian diet, but what of Harley our strict vegan?

Remember, Harley completely cuts out anything to do with animal products and relies purely on raw fruit, veggies and nuts.

His results have got Susie really worried: "My biggest concern is that your vitamin B12 is one of the lowest clinical levels we have ever seen!"

Harley's B12 was just 78. That's drastically lower than the normal intake range from 145 to 637 and means our vegan could be susceptible to anaemia, blurry vision and loss of feeling in the hands and feet in the long term.

"In the case of vegans, it's really up to them if they decide to supplement with B12. It is primarily from animal-based food so it's probably worth him discussing it with his GP or medical specialist," says Susie.

On the positive side the rest of Harley's results were perfectly normal.

Conclusion So, Mark, Edwina and Jaime have healthy diets but Mark gets a special mention for having lots of the right kind of cholesterol. In fact, recent studies have shown that a balanced vegetarian diet can often reduce cholesterol levels.

The main message for Nathan and Harley is; if you're going to be an extreme meat eater or vegan, you have to accept there may be health consequences.

"It's a personal preference the way you eat. The key thing is that whichever diet you choose, whether it's vegan, vegetarian, that it's well balanced and ticks off all those key nutrient groups," says Susie.

Fast facts

  • Talking of healthy, well-balanced diets, a small piece of dark chocolate now and then can actually encourage cardiac health. Unfortunately the same doesn't go for milk chocolate.
  • Who's more likely to have bad breath — meat-eaters or vegans? Well you might be better off kissing a vegan because studies have shown that they taste and smell better than meat-eaters. Why? Well, meat-eater's bodies have to process the animal protein and fat by-products, which cause bad breath.

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