Despite what various reaches of the Internet may have told you, vegetarianism won’t kill you. You’d think that, considering there are hundreds of millions around the world, they’d have noticed this incredibly inconvenient biological side effect by now. But no: the media are now reporting that being a vegetarian changes your DNA, gives you heart disease, and increases your chance of getting cancer.
This, as you probably suspect, is nonsense. It’s the accidental or willful misinterpretation of a study published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution. In actual fact, the study focused on the discovery of a genetic variant present in people whose ancestors primarily had a vegetarian diet, which means they processed food in a slightly different way to others.
Does this mean that you’ll see vegetarians keeling over in the street as they unsuspectingly munch on their halloumi wrap or quinoa salad? Of course it doesn’t.
“In the beginning, we were pretty happy to see our research getting so much attention,” Kaixiong Ye, a biology post-doc at Cornell University and co-author of the study, told Motherboard. “But over the last few days I have found that most of the news coming out right now [on our study] is wrong. It’s kind of frustrating.”
The researchers were looking through the 1000 Genomes Project, an international database containing human genomes from different populations found all around the world. Biologists can use this database to identify genetic differences between population groups, and in this case, the team found a specific variation in 70 percent of South Asians, 53 percent of Africans, 29 percent in East Asians, and 17 percent in Europeans.
Vegetarians have slightly different genetic variants. That’s all! Settle down, Internet. Creations/Shuterstock
This gene variant (technically known as an allele) allows these lucky people to produce synthetic versions of omega-3 and omega-6, fatty acids which are vital for proper neurological functioning, but one that’s often absent from vegetarian diets. This allele was found within people whose ancestors eschewed meat and fish, which suggests that this evolved in order for them to remain vegetarians while still getting their fatty acid fix they would otherwise miss out on.
This explains why the allele was found mainly people from South Asian populations, who historically eat far less meat; conversely, it’s rare in Europeans, whose ancestors regularly consumed meat. This, if anything, is a wonderful example of how quickly genes change in response to new environments. For the human survival machine, just like any other organism, it’s evolve or die.
The media have one thing right, then: Vegetarianism does, eventually, change your DNA, but then again, that’s just how evolution works.
Incidentally, an excess of these fatty acids can cause inflammation within the body, which in some cases can lead to troublesome cancers or heart disease. This means that those who have the so-called “vegetarian allele” should stick to their vegetarian diets, as switching to meat, for example, will give them more fatty acids that they do not need.
So vegetarianism in itself won’t cause you health problems – it’s actually switching to meat, or upping your use of vegetable oils containing fatty acids, that’re the antagonists in this story. If you stick to the diet your genes have adapted to, you’ll be fine.
In summary, then: a lack of bacon won’t give you a heart attack.