A study by researchers at the University of Minnesota made headlines this week because it found that teenagers who were vegetarians were actually less healthy than teenager who were meat eaters. Jeff Nelson of VegSource.Com wrote a reply arguing that this claim was contradicted by very data collected by the researchers and that, therefore, “the researchers conducting the study are either stupid or intellectually dishonest.” As usual, though, it is Nelson who is village idiot.
Nelson complains that the researchers relied on self-identified vegetarians who do not meet his definition of what a vegetarian is. Nelson write,
A mere 78 of the 215 “vegetarians” reported on in the study are actually vegetarians. Looking at the data of actual vegetarian kids against the rest of the group, there are little or no statistically significant differences in most categories, except that the vegetarian kids score better than the non-veg kids in a few — the opposite of what the researchers are trying to argue with the data.
Not surprisingly, given VegSource.Com’s track record, this is mostly a lie. The study did include 215 teenagers who self-described themselves as vegetarians. Of those 215 teenagers, researchers divided them into two groups: 78 restricted vegetarians, which included vegans and lacto- and lacto-ovo vegetarians); and 137 semi-vegetarians, who self-describe themselves as vegetarians but also indicated they ate chicken or fish.
Where Nelson outright lies, however, is in his claim that “there are little or no statistically significant differences in most categories.” In fact, the semi-vegetarians were more likely to engage in both healthy and unhealthy behaviors. But the research also found that the restricted vegetarian teenagers were twice as likely to be at risk for being overweight (and with a 95% confidence interval which is typically the bar set for statistical significance).
It is a little absurd for Nelson to whine that some of the “vegetarians” were still eating fish or chicken, since as the researchers note, people who move from meat eating to vegetarianism are likely to go through a transitional period where they gradually give up meat,
It may also be that semi-vegetarianism, for some, is the first step toward a more stable, restricted vegetarianism, and that once the transition is made or the vegetarianism is maintained for over 2 years, there might be fewer health-compromising weight control behaviors exhibited.
Nelson’s attack on the research is also a bit odd considering that the researchers are anything but hostile to vegetarianism. They do suggest that one approach might be to intervene with adolescent females who are using vegetarianism as an unhealthy weight loss technique, but they also add that,
Another approach may be to consider the choice of vegetarianism as an opportunity, and recruit adolescents to programs focussing on how to become a healthy vegetarian. Since adult vegetarians appear to be leaner and healthier than their nonvegetarian counterparts, learning how to become a “healthy” adolescent vegetarian may be one avenue for long-term and healthful changes in dietary patterns for adolescents.
Apparently, that’s Nelson’s idea of dishonest research. Pretty typical for VegSource.Com.
Characteristics of vegetarian adolescents in a multiethnic urban population. Cheryl L. Perry, Maureen T. Mcguire, Dianne Neumark-Sztainer and Mary Story, Journal of Adolescent Health, December 2001.