I have nothing against vegetarians, but…

I get occasional emails from vegetarians who:

1. object to ‘my meat-based’ ‘diet


2. ask how they can apply the sort of dietary principles I espouse in the context of a vegetarian diet

First off, I don’t advocate a ‘meat-based’ diet. I advocate a diet with meat (and/or fish) in it (if you don’t object to eating meat/fish on moral/ethical grounds and there’s no other barrier such a religious or you just don’t like it). Let me make this clear, I have never (and will never) suggest to someone that they should eat flesh if, for whatever reason, they don’t want to. This blog post is most certainly not a tacit cry for vegetarians and vegans to reconsider their convictions or preferences.

However, the reason that I recommend that a diet includes flesh foods is because I believe that such a diet is more likely to supply the macronutrients (like protein and fat) and micronutrients (vitamin and minerals) necessary for optimal health and wellbeing. It seems some can thrive on vegetarian diet, but I’ve known lots of others who have not.

Here’s a couple of anecdotes…

A few years back a vegetarian friend of mine was losing her hair in clumps. We looked at the usual stuff here including thyroid function and iron levels, but seemed to draw a blank. She took it upon herself to introduce fish into her diet. Shortly after her hair loss ceased. And not long after that she fell pregnant (after many years of trying). The fish may have nothing to do with these positive changes. But then again it might.

Several years ago, I was talking with a lady I met at an event. She told me she’d been a vegetarian for many years and had experienced gradually declining health. This culminated in her becoming so weak that one day she collapsed in the street. When she came round she found that she was being attended to by some kind souls. She was intuitively drawn to say ‘get me a kebab’. Someone acted on her instructions, she ate the kebab, re-introduced meat into her diet and in her own words ‘never looked back’.

Now, these are merely anecdotes and again, this is not to say someone simply can’t thrive on a vegetarian diet. My belief though is that, generally speaking, eating a vegetarian diet (and particularly a vegan one) makes it harder to enjoy peak health.

I recently came across this article in the on-line magazine Psychology Today. It provides some evidence that most vegetarians end up reverting to a diet with flesh foods in it. A poll of ex-vegetarians revealed common reasons for reversion include things like hassle and food cravings, but the most common cited reason of all was health (see below).

I don’t have anything against vegetarians, and actually admire the moral and ethical principles some exhibit. But I do struggle a bit sometimes when I see someone eating in a way which can be compromising their health (sometimes a lot). While it is possible to apply the sort of principles I espouse to a vegetarian diet to some degree, I’d be lying if I said I thought such a diet is likely to be as good for health as a more omnivorous one.

29 Responses to I have nothing against vegetarians, but…

  1. Michael Allen 13 January 2012 at 4:57 pm #

    I’ve known two veggies who suffered serious hair loss. In one case she was advised that her ferritin level was too low (too little iron, if I understand it correctly). She took some kind of dietary action (I don’t know what) and the hair loss ceased. The last time I saw the other one, a man, he had shaved off what was left of his hair.

  2. Miranda 13 January 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    I’ve veggie since I was 10 (now 45). I’m happy, healthy and have suffered no serious health issues. I shall report back in another 45 years and let you know how I’m getting on! ; )

  3. Sharon 13 January 2012 at 6:12 pm #

    I have heard that one of the problems with vegetarian diets is that they don’t always know how to eat as vegetarians. It’s my understanding that if a vegetarian dish is made up of pulses with some kind of animal product – whether that’s yoghurt or sour cream or an egg – then that combination replicates the structure and amino acids present in meat protein which obviously our bodies need. I think vegetarians struggle when they eat huge bowls of white pasta and lots of bread or just vegetables. All the vegetarians I know are unwell but it is because of diets rich in sugar and refined carbohydrate rather than a rich diet full of pulses and fresh well-cooked vegetables and yoghurt….

  4. D Callaway 13 January 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    I am 90% vegetarian but am also a ‘self listener’ and give my body what it begs for including meat and sweats on occasion. I hope a complete world of eating can be discovered with the most productive use of land in our increasingly over populated planet. I have heard raising grains to feed animals to feed humans is monstrously inefficient! Please comment

  5. Cristina 14 January 2012 at 12:11 am #

    Today we eat to much meat. No one needs meat 3 meals a day, not even 1 a day.
    But some need meat 3-5 times a week, specially if of bloodgroup O which most people still are. To eat vegan food and thrive on it we need to eat nuts, seeds, herbs like teff, quinoa, amaranth etc just as they do in vegan cultures. Many western vegans still eat western food, that wrong, and they will lack nutrients.
    I wish we would eat much more vegan and, more important, stop eating when full. It is the fastest way to help nature and our health. Imagine have much lighter we would be if 3 billion people lost in average 10 kg!!

  6. Gabriella 14 January 2012 at 1:04 am #

    Hello’ Everyone –
    It would perhaps be of interest to you all to read a very interesting article on the Myths of Vegetarianism.
    Here is the link: http://www.westonaprice.org/vegetarianism-and-plant-foods/myths-of-vegetarianism
    Happy reading, Gabriella (from Santa Barbara, Calif.)

  7. Marilyn Finlay 14 January 2012 at 1:17 am #

    I’ve been vegetarian for 40 years, and my son, brought up vegetarian, is vegan. I’ve had no health problems, rarely catch colds, and have a lot of energy. I don’t want to eat flesh of dead animals, and see no reason to change for health reasons. Most of the meat eaters I know are a great deal more unhealthy than we are.

  8. kem 14 January 2012 at 1:18 am #

    A sustainable organic farm needs to farm stock as well crops. Best for the soil, and well managed pasture can sequester more carbon than trees. And I love my cattle.

  9. Lucy 14 January 2012 at 2:38 am #

    People who collapse in the street and lose their hair just have bad diets, nothing to do with being a veggie. I’m 40, have been veggie for half my life and am very healthy and fit. I train four times a week and am stronger than any of my meat eating girlfriends. You can eat crap if you eat meat or don’t, but you can eat very well as a veggie while not eating dead animals.

  10. Nance 14 January 2012 at 3:07 am #

    @D Callaway, I don’t think anyone approves of confined feedlots for livestock. If you look at free-range livestock, though, the land supports a rich ecology of wild plants and animals. Compare that to massive use of land for corn (for food, fuel, feedlots) and other single-crop lands where you’ll find poisoned land and water with no wild ecology. Sustainable farming of both animals and plants for human consumption is desperately needed regardless of whether you eat meat or not.

  11. iRememberWhen 14 January 2012 at 8:49 am #

    “She told me she’d been a vegetarian for many years and had experienced gradually declining health. This culminated in her becoming so weak that one day she collapsed in the street.”

    Wow. This brings to mind the case of the famous vegan cookbook author Lorna Sass, an early advocate of the diet, who is also said to have publicly collapsed. Her doctor forced her to return to omnivory.

  12. Dr John Briffa 14 January 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Miranda and Lucy

    I’m not saying people can’t thrive on a vegetarian diet. In fact, above I wrote this:

    It seems some can thrive on vegetarian diet

    On the other hand, some do not. Is it just that some vegetarians eat poorly and this has nothing to do with the absence of flesh foods? Maybe, but maybe not. My friend who was losing hair was, I think, eating as good a vegetarian diet as possible. And we can’t get away from the fact that it seems that a lot of vegetarians do not do well with this way of eating and revert to eating flesh foods for health reasons.

    Again, as I’ve stated above, this is not a tacit cry to have vegetarians reconsider their convictions and preferences.

  13. Marian 14 January 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    Kem is absolutely correct regarding carbon sequestation and grasses

  14. Galina L. 14 January 2012 at 11:57 pm #

    Agriculture of grains is not sustainable as well. There is a lot of land unsuitable for agriculture but suitable for some kind of a life-stock. For somebody who doesn’t want to rely on animals feed on grains, there is always an option to buy a grass-fed meat. It is more expensive but better for a health and the expense supports more sustainable use of land.

  15. Dr Shirley Mcilvenny 16 January 2012 at 1:55 pm #

    My experience is that many vegetarians who are not getting a balanced diet of minerals become very zinc deficient and this causes hair loss. Meat is a common source of zinc and if you are fully vegetarian you need to make an effort to get plenty of zinc from nuts and pepitas. Quite a few of my vegetarian patients do not combine food properly and exist on toast and pasta and need to be educated about how to implement a vegetarian diet properly. Hence my setting up the Certificate in Food Coaching

  16. H Yohannan 16 January 2012 at 4:09 pm #

    I am 2nd generation vegetarian (ovo-lacto) and my younger daughter is 3rd generation, (with glorious hair). Being a vegetarian is an ethical and health-thoughtful position. However, I feel new (and perhaps longer term) vegetarians/vegans need to educate themselves to be sure they are eating a balanced diet, to make sure they have enough protein, be aware of the need for B12 (which is in Marmite for example) and other nutrients.

    Hair loss can be caused by stress, it may be nothing to do with diet, in some cases.

    My parents became vegetarian during the war, when it was unusual, and ate a healthy sensible diet. I haven’t suffered in any way as a result. I don’t have any problem with people eating meat or fish if they want to, but would hope that they would consider the welfare of the animals, and the sustainability of our planet. I know that would be slightly more expensive, but why not eat smaller quantities of humanely reared, tastier mean, or sustainably caught fish? Or keep chickens or ducks in your garden? They could eat the slugs that attack your veg patch!

  17. hilda glickman 17 January 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    It all depends on what the vegetarians actually eat. Living on a processed food like quorn is not a good idea. They need to know what they are doing if they don’t eat meat or fish.

  18. Ann Conroy 19 January 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    I have been a vegan for 20 years, and suffer no ill-effects that I know of. I have never been particularly careful about my diet, either – I eat whatever I fancy. I am sick of people like Kem above saying they love their cattle – they love them enough to kill them? ( How many of us would eat our pet cat or dog? That would be no more cruel.) Human beings exploit animals even though there is no need whatsoever to do so. Not only is it abominably cruel to eat animals (the fact that it’s generally socially acceptable to eat other creatures doesn’t make it right), the inefficient use of land and the over-breeding of animals contribute to world starvation and pollution and global warming.

  19. Michael Cohen 23 January 2012 at 2:10 am #

    I was a macrobiotic vegetarian when I was younger, mostly for health reasons, but I came to the conclusion that vegetarians don’t live longer, it only SEEMS longer.

  20. Andrew Mills 23 January 2012 at 7:12 pm #

    As can be observed from some of the above posts, vegatarianism is an emotionally loaded business; for many followers, it is a pseudo-religion, and therfore hard to discuss dispassionately.
    As a former vegetarian, my view is that huumans are animals who evolevd to eat omnivorously, that vegetarianism is unnatural, and unless you work at it very hard, unhealthy. Meat eating can also be unhealthy, if it is over-done, but a balanced approach is probably the best for personal health. i think the issue of food miles (eating locally produced food) is much more interesting and more likely to benefit the planet than vegetarianism.

  21. Nadia 2 February 2012 at 10:07 pm #

    I believe in eating a *species* appropriate diet. I am a human afterall. I eat fresh free range fatty meats, free range eggs & nuts, some surface vegetables and occasionally seasonal berries and fruit. I never eat “grass seeds” in any form (rice, grains etc). That’s for herbivores in my opinion and last I checked, I am definitely not one of those! lol

  22. June Richardson 13 February 2012 at 12:45 am #

    My contribution today is not to discuss the healthy or unhealthy aspects of being a vegetarian. I ask one question of Dr Briffa – can you give guidelines to vegetarians please. I don’t eat meat and I don’t eat fish. My husband does and he is following your plan. Do you have a vegetarian plan please?

  23. Paul May 15 February 2012 at 6:19 am #

    Dr Briffa, in your Radio 4 Women’s Hour commentary you mentioned Nuts could be used as part of “Primary Foods”. Now personally as a very healthy life long Vegetarian, (and Vegan for over 10 Years) please dispense with discussing Moral and Ethical reasons, and just provide guidelines for Vegetarians/Vegans on how your Dietary Principles can be put into practice for this specific group, or are you really disguising a fact that your findings can’t work successfully for people whose Diet does not include the consumption of Animal Products? Or is it a case of you simply don’t know because you’ve not researched or proven such a scenario?

  24. Dr John Briffa 15 February 2012 at 9:35 pm #

    Overall, I don’t view a vegetarian diet as optimal for health and wellbeing (and a vegan diet is even worse in these respects, in my opinion). So, in answer to your question “are you really disguising a fact that your findings can’t work successfully for people whose Diet does not include Animal Products?” I’d say no: any lack of success here is not really down to my approach, but due to the eating of a vegetarian or vegan diet. Make sense?

  25. Alan 17 February 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Dr Biffa, I bought my wife (nurse) the book called ‘The China Study’ which according to her is a very convicing book about the dangers of high animal protein (incl fish) and dairy diets – their link to cancer and other diseases. The two doctors who wrote that book recommend less than 5% protein in the diet. She only ate Fish before but has now went completely veggie. I’ve read your book and although I haven’t read the China study it leaves me very confused. Alan

  26. Galina L. 17 February 2012 at 11:00 pm #

    I really want you to read the detailed analyze by statistician of facts and statements in China Study

  27. Edwardia 23 April 2012 at 9:06 pm #

    I was a vegetarian for eleven years then moved in with my meat eating fiance and succumbed to the lure of cooked breakfasts.. I was then an omnivore for 12 yrs not eating ready meals at all. I did eat soya protein and Quorn as well. I developed T2DM 5 yrs ago. I low carb now and as long as I do under 50g carbs a day I have normal BG with help of metformin. I’ve ditched 2 drugs though. Vegetarians always say they are healthy but they have a really carb heavy diet.

  28. Louise 24 June 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    Everyone is different, some people can be vegans for years and feel great whilst for others it makes them lethargic. It is not fair for anyone to say “oh they’re just doing it wrong, I’m feeling great!” because whilst this is the case for you it will not be the same for others. Personally I felt the need to re-introduce dairy back into my diet and am beginning to feel much better after a long period of problems. I may also be eating fish for the first time soon to see its effect on me. The main thing as far as I am concerned is that whatever you eat you should make efforts to get it from ethical sources.

  29. Stuart 18 January 2013 at 5:46 pm #

    Just read dr briffas book,escape the diet trap — I’m pretty much convinced of his arguments – apart from one point that worries me related to veganism.. reading about esselsytn/ornish etc they seem to show diabetes and heart disease can be reversed by vegan diet…are there any equivalent studies showing low carb can reverese heart disease .. e.g dr briffa if you had a patient with advanced heart disease would you recommend Ornish approach or would you recommend they eat high fat/low carb diet?
    Like I say – this is the one thing that worries me is that the two approached seem diametrically opposite and so very confused!! (I’ve seen studies showing low carb fixes type 2 diabetes also – mainly interested in heart disease).
    btw I dont have heart issue or diabetes – just trying to learn here!

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