The sensationalism from the media, especially around one of the hottest debate topics of our time—animal protein vs. plant-based diets—never fails to disappoint. It could have even been construed as an amusing April Fools; the headlines were that ridiculous. That’s right, plastered across social media yesterday was a study informing us that a long-term vegetarian diet could kill you because of a genetic mutation that puts people at high risk for colon cancer and heart disease.
“Long-term vegetarian diet changes human DNA raising risk of cancer and heart disease,” the Telegram warned. “Being a long-term vegetarian changes your DNA and increases your risk of cancer” according to Cosmo UK. “Being a vegetarian could kill you, science warns,” the New York Post proclaimed. Certainly, hold onto your arm chairs. Brace yourself. We’re all screwed, apparently and meat-eaters are validated yet again … at least according to mainstream media, who cannot analyse and report accurately on a study if scratching their own rear-end depended on it.
Vegetarian Diet Could Kill You..? Huh?
If the reporters of the stupefying “news” headlines had any brain cells remaining or an ethical bone left in their bodies, they’d quite clearly see that the study didn’t say that. Not even close. Not at all.
What researchers from Cornell University actually identified was an insertion allele—a gene variant where DNA bases are added to a genome—in some people whose ancestors maintained a primarily vegetarian diet. This allele allows these individuals to produce synthetic versions of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acid, which are essential for brain function, but can sometimes be lacking from vegetarian diets (depending on how individuals eat).
This speculation that human beings, over hundreds of generations, might show genetic variants that make them more efficient at processing omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids into chemicals for early brain development and controlling inflammation is quite interesting. It turned out that people who relied more on plants for food had this allele in higher numbers than people who ate meat. The authors also found that among those adapted to the oils and foods of a traditional vegetarian diet, the imbalances of the modern diet might be especially harmful.
This allele was more commonly found in individuals from more vegetarian cultures. While about 70% of South Asians had it, only 17% of Europeans (whose ancestors ate meat) did. The researchers compared genetic markers in a population of 234 primarily vegetarian Indians, to those in 311 Americans with fairly typical diets, and found, indeed, that the Indians had a higher frequency of genetic mutations that make them good at producing the fats their diet doesn’t provide.
But in amongst the battle for news headlines and sensationalist media who love to blatantly lie and create a stir, this study about a gene variant that means some people might be better off eating a vegetarian diet was misinterpreted to mean that eating vegetarian will cause your genes to mutate and lead to a higher risk of colon cancer and heart disease.
The study never suggested that vegetarian diets were harmful. Rather, it showed that traditional vegetarian populations might be especially prone to the harms of the modern diet. This might help explain, for example, why ethnic Indians seem so prone to type 2 diabetes when they transition to a diet of burgers, fries, and soda.
Mainstream Media Does it Again
It’s not the first time something this has happened, either. During 2015, mainstream media bastardised another study and misreported that vegetarian diets are worse for the environment than meat-centric diets. The researchers themselves came out in defence, again, and announced that news headlines stating that vegetarianism is more harmful to the environment than eating meat is a total mischaracterisation of what they found. The misleading news headlines were quickly debunked, but meat-eaters generally aren’t interested in any kind of response to something so inflammatory if it suits their purpose.
The Cornell University study being portrayed as finding that a long-term vegetarian diet could kill you is nothing but appalling. “Long-term” isn’t even in reference to a single lifetime, though news reporters knew that’s how it would be inferred. The Cornell University researchers were referring to many, many generations over, which the allele which can boost the expression of the enzymes FADS1 and FADS2 that convert omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, can mutate to eventually favour either vegetarians or heavy marine meat-eaters. One could easily conclude that traditional, balanced vegetarian diets are an excellent, healthful choice for anyone so inclined, but may be especially important for people from populations that have made that choice for a long time as they have a higher likelihood of being specifically adapted to it. The study doesn’t look at heart disease, cancer, or death. It only looked at gene frequencies.
Nathaniel Comfort is the Baruch Blumberg professor of astrobiology at the Library of Congress and NASA blogs about hype and misconceptions in genetic research. Comfort advised that, “There was a cascade of misinformation. The way this happened is through a kind of informational entropy.” and that there were a number of elements that made this particular study ripe for misunderstanding.
We already know with a large growing body of scientific evidence that plant-based diets have shown to reduce heart disease and cancer risks, that a vegan world could prevent 8.1 million deaths per year (among other benefits), and a large-study body of evidence shows that type 2 diabetes is completely preventable for at least 93% of people today by adhering to healthy dietary principles involving fruits, vegetables, wholefoods and regular physical activity. Vegans are also known to live longer.
Meanwhile, animal protein is known to be inflammatory to the human bod. The Neu5Gc sugar in red meat sparks a toxic immune response which can lead to the progression of cancer. We also now know that fat in animal meat and dairy can cause insulin resistance and the progression of type 2 diabetes.
Heck, when you eat meat, you take in heme iron, which has been shown to be very oxidising and has been linked to diabetes and heart disease. There’s actually a gigantic amount of things that occur upon the ingestion of animal protein involving Advanced Glycation End-Products (AGEs), Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs), the stimulation of the growth hormone IGF-1, and it was known 40 years ago that N-Nitroso Compounds are present in food treated with sodium nitrite (salted, cured, processed meats like bacon, prosciutto, etc) are strongly associated with colon cancer. The World Health Organisation marked red meat as a carcinogen.
Sorry meat eaters, but sharing an article completely misreporting a study titled a “vegetarian diet could kill you” is nothing near true, nothing near factual, and nothing short of a pathetic attempt to derail.