Should you eat meat, go vegetarian or try to straddle some middle ground? We’ve learned a lot about healthy diets over the last 30 years, but there’s still so much we don’t understand. To try and explain what we know, I’m going to start by defining some terms.

Omnivores eat both plants and animals. There are no restrictions on what they consume.

Are meat eaters of vegetarians healthier?

Trainer Martina Bevis with beef and beef alternatives.

Pescatarians eat plants and avoid all meats except fish. Most (but not all) will also eat products with animals involved, like milk from cows, eggs from chickens or honey from bees.

Vegetarians eat plants and avoid all meats. Many will also eat products that have animals involved, like milk from cows, eggs from chickens or honey from bees.

Vegans eat plants and avoid all animal products completely. That means no meat of any kind or foods with animals involved like dairy, eggs or honey.

Flexitarians are primarily vegetarians, but on occasion, they will indulge in fish or other meats.

The argument for eating meat is a simple one. Ounce for ounce, meat is packed with more protein than almost any combination of vegetables. It’s a great source of vitamin B-12, and meat can also be delicious.

The argument against eating a lot of meat is extensive. These are some of the things researchers have found.

Eating like a vegetarian can significantly reduce heart attack and stroke. In a 2017 study published in Nutrients, researchers found “that plant-based diets may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease events by an estimated 40% and the risk of cerebral vascular disease events by 29%.”

Grilling meat, especially if it has a lot of fat on it, can increase your cancer risk. When you grill, you’re cooking at higher temperatures. The fat that melts, drips into the fire or grill element. Those drippings flare up. The smoke that rises back up and infuses the meat contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Unfortunately, that tasty charring is a cancer-causing agent.

The higher temperatures also produce another cancer-causing agent called heterocyclic amines (HCAs). When red meat, poultry or fish are cooked at higher temperatures, like grilling or broiling, HCAs are produced. The longer you cook the meat, and the higher temperature you cook it at, the more HCAs form.

You can safely grill fruits and vegetables because PAHs and HCAs don’t form on them.

Meats often have sodium nitrite added to help preserve the red coloring. Without it, bacon and hot dogs would appear gray. The problem is, over time, nitrite breaks down into cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines, especially in fried bacon. Many food companies add ascorbic acid or erythorbic acid to slow down the nitrosamine formation to reduce the danger. That’s good, but it doesn’t completely eliminate the risk.

People who eat meat have less healthy guts. Frontiers in Nutrition published a study in 2019 that compared the gut microbiota of vegans, vegetarians and meat-eaters. They found “A plant-based diet appears to be beneficial for human health by promoting the development of more diverse and stable microbial systems.” It’s believed fiber was one of the key components that provided benefits.

Finally, a huge study in the UK concluded that even if vegetarians drink alcohol and smoke, they will still live longer than meat-eaters who don’t.

Researchers in Glasgow decided to measure the health differences between meat-eaters and vegetarians. To do that, they analyzed blood and urine for 19 health-related biomarkers. Those biomarkers are related to diseases like cancer, cardiovascular problems, diabetes, joint health and other chronic conditions.

The study consisted of 177,723 healthy people between the ages of 37 and 73 who had a consistent diet for the previous five years. There were 4,111 self-identified vegetarians and 166,516 meat-eaters.

Even after researchers factored in age, sex, education, ethnicity, obesity, smoking, and alcohol intake, they found that vegetarians had significantly healthier numbers on 13 of the 19 biomarkers than the meat-eaters. Vegetarians had 21% lower total cholesterol and 16.4% lower LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) than meat-eaters. Researchers found that vegetarians had a significantly lower risks for heart disease and cancer.

It wasn’t all good news. Vegetarians had lower levels of Vitamin D, which is considered beneficial, significantly higher levels of fats in their blood and higher levels of a protein called Cystatin C which could mean decreased kidney function.

Ready to make your decision? Not quite yet. On top of all those considerations, there are also environmental and “meat replacement” products to consider. I’ll cover those next week.

Check with your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise program. For a free consultation with a WeBeFit trainer, call 305-296-3434. Read articles online at http://www.webefit.com and get updates by following us on Facebook.