16 May 2021

Vegetarians have healthier biomarker profiles than meat-eaters

From Sunday Morning, 5:25 pm on 16 May 2021

A study of 177,723 adults in the UK has found people on a vegetarian diet have healthier levels of disease markers than those who eat meat.

Assortment of  fresh fruits and vegetables

Photo: 123RF

Of the participants, 4111 were vegetarian as in those who did not eat red meat, poultry or fish; 166,516 were meat-eaters.

The UK Biobank study was completed by researchers from the University of Glasgow. It looked at the biomarkers of people aged between 37 and 73 and found lower levels of biomarkers in vegetarians that can lead to cell damage and chronic disease.

Researchers analysed the association with 19 urine and blood biomarkers related to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, liver, bone and joint health, and kidney function.

From the human nutrition department of Otago University, Dr Ali Hill explained what biomarkers were and what this research might reveal.

"You can think of a biomarker as being something in the body that you can measure, and you can use this to predict things like whether you're likely to get a disease or not. It's sort of like playing rugby and having Dan Carter in your social rugby group - you're probably going to win ... get a lot of points, but it's not necessarily going to lead to that."

She said vegetarians could have lower levels of calcium and vitamin D if they have a lower level of dairy intake.

"The key thing about nutrition is: it's all about balance.

"Vegetarians will usually have higher levels in fruits and vegetables - these are the things that are linked to them having a better biomarker status. But you can still do that even if you're on a meat diet ... as long as you're getting fruit and vegetables, then that will be fantastic."

She said she was not aware of any studies that could link consuming too much meat to getting cancer, but at most, it could be a prediction.

There were other factors like physical activity and carbohydrate content of a diet that counted, she said.

"We do generally find that vegetarians tend to eat more healthily so they tend to have lower fat products, they tend to be more active, so we do know there's a link there which is why it is so difficult to be sure that any impact on biomarkers is caused by diet itself."

For vegetarians, she said it was important to balance proteins with beans and pulses. "Something like chilli and rice is really good to make sure you get all the protein you need."

She said there was a shift of more people moving away from meat in their diets, citing some universities in the UK that do not serve meat on campus.

"There's an interest in diet but an increased interest in sustainability."