By Colleen Tinker
Last Friday, within hours of publishing our weekly Proclamation! email, we received a surprising number of responses from readers containing not-so-surprising reactions to the article “Study Finds Vegetarians Sicker Than Meat Eaters”. We share a few excepts here:
“I found your willingness to accept a ‘study’ out of Austria on the perverse effects of vegetarianism to be rather uncritical. To suggest that a vegetarian lifestyle…is somehow inferior to a meat diet without giving any ‘studies’ that may suggest otherwise is risky at best…While I would fully endorse the idea that the Scriptures nowhere makes diet a matter of ‘sin’ or ‘righteousness’, it can be effectively argued from the Scriptures that the Edenic diet was fruits, nuts, grains, and vegetables, and after the flood God specifically added meat to man’s diet (possibly to shorten man’s life span).”
“I was an Adventist from 1979–1986, and I was vegan for that period of time. My vegan diet helped me lose extra weight, and I felt great! When I left Adventism I ‘threw out the baby with the bathwater’, returning to my previous meat-eating diet. I quickly gained back much of the weight I’d lost, and I was often more constipated and experienced heartburn, etc., I decided to return to a vegetarian diet, and then returned to being vegan about seven years ago. I lost that extra weight again, and I felt much better—no more constipation, acid stomach, or bloating. My wife and son are also vegan and we rarely experience sickness in our home. We are all very well-balanced mentally. I attribute much of my improved mental state to finally letting go completely of any type of works-based religion, and returning to the grace-based faith I had when I was originally born again before my intro to Adventism.”
“I don’t find this article helpful at all. Using the Austrian study as the basis for a screed against obviously erroneous Adventist teaching will do nothing but anger the very Adventists you’re trying to reach. Ellen White’s so-called health teachings are easy enough to counteract with a reasonable tone…I got the sense in reading the article that anyone who opts for a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle should be pitied and may be in danger of rejecting God’s word. Why not allow people to come to their own conclusions, a la Romans 14? It simply is not ours to judge another man’s servant.”
A bit more background
Before we make a more examined look at this hotly-debated subject, It might be helpful to read the conclusion of the Austrian study we cited last in last week’s article.
The cross-sectional study, which was conducted at the University of Graz and published in 2014, used a sample “taken from the Austrian Health Interview Survey.” It included 1320 subjects “matched according to their age, sex, and socioeconomic status…Analyses of variance were conducted controlling for lifestyle factors” including health, health care, and quality of life.
The discussion of the study’s findings states, “no statements can be made whether the poorer health in vegetarians in our study is caused by their dietary habit or if they consume this form of diet due to their poorer health status.” In conclusion, however, the researchers state, “Our study has shown that Austrian adults who consume a vegetarian diet are less healthy (in terms of cancer, allergies, and mental health disorders) have a lower quality of life, and also require more medical treatment. Therefore, a continued strong public health program for Austria is required in order to reduce the health risk due to nutritional factors.”
In short, data about Austrian diet and nutrition is sparse, and this study contributes significantly to the country’s public health and health-care concerns.
In recent years, however, much research has been cited to support the idea that a vegetarian/vegan diet reduces the risks of heart disease, cancers, and various inflammatory diseases and increases one’s life-expectancy. The Adventist Health Study, in fact, has been a significant source of such data.
Interestingly, several years ago my husband Richard sat eating lunch in the cafeteria at Loma Linda University with someone working on the Adventist Health Study conducted by the School of Public Health. As they conversed, the employee stated that the study’s conclusions that a vegetarian diet increases one’s life expectancy by several years is misleading. He explained that the study, which collects data from questionnaires filled out by Adventists (whose pastors distribute the forms and often ask people to complete them if they are healthy and can give a good report), reveal a seven to ten year advantage in life expectancy over the general population. What the study does not state, however, is that if the Adventists’ data is compared with that of non-Adventists who do not smoke, do not become drunk, but who do eat poultry, fish, and moderate amounts of red meat, the life expectancies are equivalent.
In other words, it is not vegetarianism which gives the “Adventist advantage”. Rather, it is the lack of smoking and excessive alcohol that improves lifespan. In fact, Mormons, whose religion prohibits the use of alcohol and tobacco but does allow meat, share a similar life expectancy advantage.
In addition, books such as The China Study, which reported the conclusions of researcher T. Colin Campbell’s China Project study, captured the attention of Adventists as well as many others. In his book, Campbell argued that a vegetarian diet improved health, while meat caused disease.
Interestingly, the magazine Adventist Today ran a critical and well-cited article in its March-April, 2012, edition, entitled “The China Study: Incredible Science? Or Science That’s Not So Credible?” Author Roger Trubey cited extensively both from Campbell’s data and also from analyses written by scholars who had researched the study and compared it to the published book.
In short, Trubey states, the book reflected Campbell’s personal conclusions—not the actual facts revealed in the data: “For those who did immerse themselves into the raw data provided by the original China Project, what they found was a substantial dichotomy between the data itself and that of Dr. Campbell’s conclusions in his book.”
In fact, the data of the China Project actually revealed some surprising correlations. Trubey writes, “Probably the most startling finding of the raw data, not provided us by Dr. Campbell, is the strong positive association between heart disease and wheat…the unvarnished truth is that the primary predictor of heart disease rates in the China Project, if there is one, is the type of grain consumed, and wheat produced the highest disease correlations of any food.”
In short, Campbell’s popular book reflected his own bias against animal foods, but it did not reflect the actual data of his study. Ultimately, the China Project implicated wheat with increased risk for heart and autoimmune diseases, while animal proteins showed a much lower correlation.
What we ARE and ARE NOT Saying
In responding to the letters to the editor concerning this subject of meat vs. vegetarianism, we want to be sure we are clear: we are not recommending any particular diet. God has given us freedom to eat whatever we wish to eat, as Romans 14 makes clear.
Being vegetarian or vegan does not mean one is rejecting God’s word or acting in disobedience to His commands. Conversely, meat is not the enemy.
Speaking as one who deeply believed the studies saying vegetarianism gave one a health advantage—and also believed the spiritual implications of Ellen White’s statements that meat eating clouded the brain and prevented one from growing spiritually and perceiving the Holy Spirit, I know how intense the visceral aversion to meat can be. Even if one dared to eat a bit of meat, the resulting fear and guilt could nullify any enjoyment those brief mouthfuls may have provided.
I have also lived with a husband who grew up believing that meat was “not food”. That teaching was a lie. Believing that meat was not food removed the element of choice from the issue. It made a lie out of the biblical statements that God gave meat for food, and it created aversions that are as difficult to overcome as are addictions.
Our purpose in writing these articles is not to insist that people leaving Adventism must necessarily learn to eat meat. Rather, we are suggesting that when one discovers the gospel and trusts the finished work of the Lord Jesus, He begins to bring all of our presuppositions into the light. We can trust the One who loved us enough to die for us, and we can trust Him to redeem our food issues.
Aversions to meat create social barriers which the new covenant breaks down. The Savior who can break life-threatening addictions can also remove the aversions which separate us from our believing brothers and sisters—a freedom Richard experienced as he submitted his resistance to meat to the Lord Jesus.
Finally, eating meat is not a requirement for Christians. It is, however, a provision which we can embrace. Studies can be flawed and are often unreliable as sources of wisdom for living. God’s word, however, is living and sufficient, and it has the final authority even in matters of diet:
“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:20-23).
Trubey, Roger N, “The China Study: Incredible Science? Or Science That’s Not So Credible?”, Adventist Today, March-April, 2012, p. 4-11.