The herbivore vs. omnivore debate rages on.

Recently I came upon this study (although it was carried out in 2008), which found a correlation between the loss of brain volume and low vitamin B12 status of elderly individuals. The news site through which I found out about this study, however, put the findings rather more bluntly, stating simply that “a vegetarian diet shrinks the brain”. A number of other news sites used equally straightforward and provocative headlines on the same study. Vitamin B12 is found in animal products, so the conclusion drawn by the news site does have factual grounding, despite its simplicity.

To me, however, the concerning element is the tone of the headline used in the article, which adds fuel to the fire of the ever-present debate between vegetarians and meat eaters regarding the health benefits of each lifestyle. This is all too evident in the somewhat spiteful comment responses to the article where one user (evidently a meat-eater) claims, “your diet is an insult to Darwin himself”. This is matched by a blunt retort from a vegetarian who asserts, “this article is bullcrap”.

A similar example that comes to mind is that of the well known advertisements that used to be on television featuring actor Sam Neill explaining the benefits of red meat consumption to an orang-utan, as this symbolised the theory that consumption of meat was crucial in our evolution from lower-order primates. These ads were met with strong criticism from animal rights groups and vegetarians.

Actor Sam Neill came under fire from some groups for his appearance in an advertisement for red meat.

By gdcgraphics, via Wikimedia Commons.

There appears to be something inherent in people to take sides on seemingly inconsequential subjects whether it be this, the use of PCs vs. Macs, shopping at Coles vs. Woolworths, etc.

Battles can seemingly erupt from the most trivial of lifestyle differences!

By Edward Percy Moran, via Wikimedia Commons.

The article outlined above takes advantage of this tendency in order to generate interest, and crafts the scientific findings to add reputability to the claims. Herein lies a stark contrast between the communication used in the scientific paper, where the study concludes that low vitamin B12 status warrants further investigation as a cause of brain atrophy, and news websites interested in generating hits. Unfortunately for the considered science papers, it is not nearly as fun for the lay person to show their friends a scientific paper and say “I told you X warrants further investigation” as it is for them to definitively declare “I was RIGHT and you were WRONG!”


2 Responses to “The herbivore vs. omnivore debate rages on.”

  1. Karl Trounson says:

    Yes, exactly, those are good points. The study does not explicitly state that any of the subjects were vegetarians or vegans. In addition, the news stories neglected to mention that the study was undertaken on an elderly population, and any brain atrophy in these individuals is likely to be multifactorial, so it would be difficult to attribute any brain shrinking seen to vitamin B12 deficiency alone.

  2. auph says:

    It is interesting that the study itself did not mention anything about the diets of the people who participated in the study but the news article says that the study found that “loss of brain mass in vegetarians and vegans is due to a deficiency of Vitamin B12, which is found in meat, fish and eggs.”

    People can be vitamin B12 deficient even if they ate meat because it depends on whether the body can digest and absorb it (see wiki: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitamin_B12#Absorption_and_distribution)

    I think the news story would be a classic example of why scientists would be hesitant to approach the media about their research.