Dan Murphy: Chiknz vs. Eggz

Does a vegetarian diet make people sicker? Or are sicker people attracted to the veggie/vegan diet as a result of illness? ( . )

A new survey from Great Britain provokes an intriguing question: Does a vegetarian diet make people sicker? Or are sicker people attracted to the veggie/vegan diet as a result of illness?

Like me, you probably had a “Which came first: The chicken or the egg?” argument at some point during adolescence.

I don’t mean one of those hypothetical back-and-forth conversations that wind down for lack of enthusiasm 10 seconds after posing the question. I mean a real, give-no-quarter debate in which nobody wins, but nobody concedes, either.

When you’re 10 years old, such an argument can last for an eternity, but ultimately you realize that a passion for one’s position is no substitute for intellectual rigor — because at some point the debate grinds to a dead end. With even a modest amount of self-awareness, however, you eventually understand that there are some controversies that, though worth debating, can’t be “solved” — at least not definitively.

Yet throughout adulthood, we all experience innumerable occasions where somebody insists, with neither evidence nor data, that their hot take on some issue must be accepted as the final word.

Such is the case with discussions about the vegan lifestyle. To listen to literally hundreds of “authorities” I’ve encountered over the years, theirs is the definitive explanation of what it is, why it’s emerging and why people who label themselves as such have chosen to follow that path.

Veggie-related absences

For example: According to a recent report in the British newspaper The Express, a study of some 1,000 office workers in the United Kingdom last year showed that vegans averaged nearly five days off annually. In contrast, Brits who don’t reside on Planet Vegan averaged less than half the number of sick days, versus vegans.

Not only that, but vegans/veggies booked doctor visits an average of 2.6 times during the cold and flu season in 2018. That’s three times Britain’s national average of 0.7 visits during the same season by non-vegetarians, according to the newspaper.

The survey, funded Fisherman’s Friend, makers of cold, cough and allergy relief products, also revealed that two out of three of the respondents who stated that they didn’t eat any meat, seafood or dairy products admitted taking more sick days in 2018 than in previous years. The newspaper noted that, “This is in contrast to their carnivorous co-workers, half of whom said they took the same amount of time off last year compared to the year before, while a third said they took fewer days off in 2018.”

Now, for the “chikn-or-plant-derived eggz” debate: Does a vegetarian diet cause additional sickness, or are vegetarians more likely to have experienced diet-related illnesses that prompted them to give up meat and dairy?

In other words, is what seems to be a greater incidence of illness caused by giving up animal foods, or is giving up animal foods the result of people having greater pre-existing levels of sickness?

Don’t look to the survey for answers, as The Express article stated that, “The report did not shed light on the exact reasons behind the high number of sick days for vegans.”

There are some clues, however.

According to Medical News Today,

It’s well-known that vegans and vegetarians are at greater risk of diet-related deficiencies of zinc and vitamin B12, micronutrients found primarily found in animal products. Those deficits can lead to a weakened immune system, which makes one susceptible to cold or flu symptoms serious enough to prompt that haggard, painful-sounding phone call to the boss informing him or her that “I can’t make it in today [cough, cough].”

Likewise, some vegetarians, especially newbies, simply stop eating beef, pork, chicken and dairy products, without much thought to how to replace the protein, vitamins and minerals those foods provide. That’s also a recipe for compromised wellness.

Personally, I believe it makes sense to theorize that a significant percentage of the population that chooses to go veggie had initially encountered problems, nutritionally speaking, on the so-called conventional diet, and that became a major motivation for adopting a more radical, restrictive diet.

Granted, the vast majority of vegetarians will contend that they gave up meat to advance animal welfare (no offense to the other several trillion wild animals who aren’t domesticated livestock) or to save the Earth from imminent destruction due to the horrific impact of feeding cows, pigs and chickens (those with names or status as pets excluded, of course).

Nevertheless, I can’t help but believe that in addition to an (alleged) soft spot for certain of the species in the animal kingdom, many vegetarians are also driven by a desire to deal with problems related to consumption of animal foods.

But like figuring out whether the chicken of the egg came first, there’s just no way to settle that squabble.

The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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