A study into dietary patterns and how they affect the prevalence of metabolic syndrome or its individual risk factors has concluded that people who don’t eat meat are around 56% less likely to develop metabolic syndrome than those that do.
This particular piece of research is part of a larger study by the Karoliska Institute in Sweden and the Loma Linda University in California. The research project examines the health of Seventh Day Adventists, a Christian denomination that emphasizes good health and whose members often follow certain dietary patterns such as limiting meat intake.
Studying Seventh Day Adventists is seen as useful because they are unlikely to drink alcohol or smoke, and tend to take regular exercise, so researchers do not have to adjust their results too much to account for these factors. However some people argue that studying such a specific group means that the results may not be representative of the general population.
What was the Purpose of the Study?
This small study, published in the journal Diabetes Care, followed 773 Seventh Day Adventists to discover whether their meat intake had any impact on their risk of developing metabolic syndrome or its individual risk factors.
Metabolic syndrome consists of a group of disorders including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high BMI, excessive waist circumference, and high cholesterol. All of these individual risk factors that combine to create metabolic syndrome are also known to increase the chances of developing heart disease or diabetes.
The volunteers in the study were divided into three groups:
- Vegetarians were those that ate meat or fish less than once per month
- Semi-vegetarians were those that ate meat less than once per month but ate fish more regularly
- Non-vegetarians were those that ate meat (including poultry) more than once per month
35% were vegetarian, 16% were semi-vegetarian, and 49% were non-vegetarian. The participants were also asked about their exercise habits, their consumption of alcohol, and their smoking status.
The researchers then determined whether the participants, whose average age was 60, had metabolic syndrome or any of the individual risk factors for metabolic syndrome. They classified participants as having high blood sugar if their fasting glucose levels were above 100mg/dL, and they recorded participants as having high blood pressure or diabetes if they were taking medications for these.
What Did the Study Show?
Overall the study concluded that vegetarians were less likely to suffer from metabolic syndrome or its individual risk factors than their meat-eating counterparts. For example the average BMI (body mass index) of the participants was 25.7kg/m2 for the vegetarians, 27.6kg/m2 for the semi-vegetarians, and 29.9kg/m2 for the non-vegetarians.
Only 12% of the vegetarians in the study displayed three or more of the risk factors associated with metabolic syndrome, while 19% of the participants in the other two meat-eating groups showed three or more of these risk factors.
Overall only 25.2% of the members of the vegetarian group were classified as having metabolic syndrome, while this was significantly higher in the two meat-eating groups at 39.7%. This means that the vegetarians who took part in the study had a 56% reduced chance of developing metabolic syndrome compared with the other participants in the study.
Generally nutritionists don’t recommend a completely meat and fish free diet, as these foods can be a great source of the proteins that are essential for the body’s cells. However, reducing the amount of meat you eat, and replacing red meat, and highly processed meats, with fish and poultry can be very beneficial to your health and can reduce the risk of heart disease or diabetes.
The vegetarians in the study may well have displayed fewer factors of metabolic syndrome because their diet was likely to contain less of the processed carbohydrates that often accompany the eating of meats, as well as containing large amounts of vegetables and fruits. This combination would have helped them to reduce their risk of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and high blood sugar; elements of metabolic syndrome which can all lead to heart disease and diabetes.