Vegetarian diet: How genes can influence how well you adhere

Evan Walker
Evan Walker TheMediTary.Com |
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Experts say fresh vegetables are a key component of a healthy diet. Maria Manco/Stocksy
  • Vegetarianism has been practiced worldwide for thousands of years for cultural, moral, and health reasons.
  • Researchers now say some people may be more genetically predisposed to choose to follow a vegetarian dietary pattern.
  • Experts point out that genetics are often only one factor out of many in determining health outcomes.

Some people may find it difficult to maintain a strictly vegetarian diet.

According to new research, your genes may help explain why.

A study published today in the scientific journal PLOS One notes that vegetarians make up less than 5% of the U.S. population and about half to two-thirds of self-identified vegetarians consume fish, poultry, or red meat at least occasionally.

The researchers suggest that genetic factors may help explain why some people adhere to a strictly vegetarian diet while others do not.

So how did they test their theory, what did they find, and what do experts have to say about it?

Does this mean that your diet is predetermined by your genes? Not quite, experts say.

“This study does not in fact show any causational role of these potentially vegetarian SNPs,” said Megan Wroe, a wellness manager and registered dietitian at the Wellness Center of Providence St. Jude Medical Center in California who was not involved in the study.

“Even if these SNPs were found in a genetic assessment, it does not mean, based on this data, that they should in fact follow a vegetarian diet or that anything negative would happen if they didn’t,” Wroe told Medical News Today.

“Just like anything else, you can have a genetic predisposition but never see that outcome. You can show you have genetic risk factors for cancer and never get cancer. There are too many other factors at play such as movement, stress, and environmental toxins,” she added.

There are other reasons to be cautious with these results, experts advised.

“The study was well done overall, but any time you use food journals and recalls as the main identifying factor of how a person eats you run into unreliable data,” said Wroe.

“The findings from this study are not generalizable since the people who participated in the study tended to be female, older, healthier, and of high socioeconomic status,” said Dr. Amanda Velazquez, the director of Obesity Medicine at the Center for Weight Management and Metabolic Health at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles who was not involved in the study.

“We have to be cautious to apply these findings to the entire population until more research is done to study more diverse populations,” Velazquez told Medical News Today.

Some people may decide that a strictly vegetarian diet isn’t for them, but that doesn’t mean they will be in poor health.

“It’s important for individuals to make dietary choices that align with their personal preferences and cultural factors, in addition to their overall Health goals. There’s no right or wrong way to eat and finding what’s best for the individual is encouraged,” said Hill.

“The healthier types of meat are categorized as lean meat. Examples of lean meat include chicken, turkey, and fish. As it relates to red meat, the World Cancer Research Fund International generally recommends to limit red meat consumption to three servings per week with a serving being four to six ounces,” Hill advised.

“We should aim to minimize factory farmed meat as much as possible, but I am a big advocate of including grass-fed or pasture-raised meats on a regular basis for the quality nutrients they provide that cannot be obtained from plants,” said Wroe.

The idea of either eating meat or not eating meat doesn’t necessarily have to be a strict choice either.

“Focus less on whether you need to follow vegan or vegetarian or flexitarian diet… and simply start cooking and using less highly processed packaged products. Most of us would be so much healthier if we simply ate homemade food more often,” said Wroe.

If you’re considering switching to a meatless diet, experts recommend making the transition gradually.

“Start including vegetarian protein sources such as beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Try substituting one of these for an animal protein daily,” said Velazquez.

“Often times in diet culture, we have viewed it as ‘all or nothing’ and forget that even small steps can make a difference,” Velazquez added.

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