Scientific Update

A Review of Recent Scientific Papers Related to Vegetarianism

By Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, FADA

Federal Government Announces Veggie-Friendly Changes to the WIC Food Package

The federal government's Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, called WIC for short, provides food vouchers to low-income pregnant, postpartum, and breastfeeding women and their infants and children up to age 5. Recent changes to the food packages included in the WIC program make them more vegetarian-friendly. These changes, the first major revision to the WIC food package since 1980, will be phased in between February 2008 and August 2009. The changes include the following:

  • Soymilk or tofu as a substitution for cow's milk for women and children. (Medical documentation is required for children.) Tofu and soymilk must meet specific nutritional standards to be approved for purchase.
  • A reduced amount of cow's milk for children and pregnant women; milk for age 2 and older must be 2% milk.
  • An allowance for canned beans, along with dried beans, which were previously part of the food package.
  • An increase in the amounts of peanut butter and dried or canned beans for women.
  • A reduction in the amount of juice; the addition of fruits and vegetables for women and children and the addition of bananas and baby fruits and vegetables for infants.
  • An emphasis on whole grains.
  • A reduction in the amount of eggs.

Federal Register. Revisions in the WIC Food Packages; Interim Rule. Code of Federal Regulations, 7CFR, Part 246. Dec. 6, 2007. 72:68,966-69,032.

United States Dept. of Agriculture. WIC Food Package. Available here

Updated Recommendations for Reducing Risk of Cancer

The American Institute for Cancer Research and the World Cancer Research Fund recently updated their 1997 publication, which examined links between diet and cancer risk. This report is developed by a group of experts and is designed to be used in developing health policy worldwide.

The most recent report, completed in 2007, concluded that there is convincing evidence that red meat and processed meat increase the risk of cancer of the colon and rectum. There is a suggestion, but limited evidence, of an association between red meat intake and risk of cancer of the esophagus, lungs, pancreas, and endometrium. Also, limited evidence suggests an association between processed meat and increased risk of cancer of the esophagus, lungs, stomach, and prostate. Vegetables probably decrease risk of cancer of the mouth, esophagus, and stomach, and fruits are associated with a probable decreased risk of these cancers as well as lung cancer.

The recommendations of this expert panel include the following:

  • Eat mostly foods of plant origin, including at least five servings of a variety of non-starchy vegetables and fruits every day. Relatively unprocessed grains and/or legumes should be eaten with every meal.
  • Be physically active as part of everyday life.
  • Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight.
  • If eaten at all, limit intake of red meat to less than 18 ounces weekly; avoid processed meat.

WCRF/AICR. Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective. Washington: AICR, 2007.

Childhood Dairy Intake and Adult Cancer Risk

Dietary patterns in childhood may affect risk for certain cancers in adulthood. A recent study examined the link between childhood dairy intake and adult cancers. The initial information for this study was collected close to 70 years ago in Great Britain. Approximately 5,000 children were studied, and their dairy intake was estimated based on the amount of dairy products used by their household. The children were tracked through adulthood, and the investigators identified those who had developed cancer. High childhood dairy intake (including milk, cheese, and ice cream) was associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer but not with an increased risk of breast, prostate, or stomach cancer. Higher milk intake (a little more than a cup of milk daily) in childhood was also associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer and a decreased risk of prostate cancer in adulthood. The study's researchers speculate that dairy intake in childhood may affect the functioning of the immune system and thereby increase cancer risk, although this is only one possibility.

Van der Pols JC, Bain C, Gunnell D, et al. 2007. Childhood dairy intake and adult cancer risk: 65-y follow-up of the Boyd Orr cohort. Am J Clin Nutr 86:1,722-29.

Obesity May Reduce Health Care Costs

Obesity may reduce health care costs? That statement seems counterintuitive. After all, doesn't obesity lead to medical problems that increase, health care costs?

A recent report from the Netherlands suggests otherwise. This study, conducted with computer modeling, predicted that preventing obesity can help people to live longer. People who live longer have higher health care costs, especially in the later years. Obese people have higher medical costs than do non-obese people, if you compare them from one year to the next. However, obesity increases risk for diseases like diabetes and heart disease, which frequently results in a shorter lifespan. This shorter lifespan in those with obesity tends to lower lifelong medical costs.

The question of the impact of longer life on health care costs has not been directly studied with vegetarians. Some studies of vegetarian Seventh-day Adventists suggest that they take less medicine and have fewer hospital stays than do non-vegetarians, possibly resulting in a reduced health care cost compared to non-vegetarians.

Should these results be used to slash funding for obesity prevention programs? Of course not! Obesity prevention does not have to reduce health care costs to be important. Obesity can cause suffering and death, so any interventions that can help people live longer, healthier lives should be pursued, regardless of the hypothetical potential for increased health care costs due to the resultant longer lifespan.


van Baal PHM, Polder JJ, deWit GA, et al. 2008. Lifetime medical costs of obesity: Prevention no cure for increasing health expenditure. PLoS Med 5(2): e29. doi:10.1371/journal. pmed.0050029.

Nuts – More May Be Less

If you eat several handfuls of nuts every day in addition to your usual food intake and don't increase your activity, you'll gain weight, right? That's what we'd expect to hear since those several handfuls of nuts would supply several hundred calories more than you usually take in, and extra calories lead to weight gain. Imagine how surprised researchers must have been when they looked at studies where subjects were fed nuts in addition to their usual food and either did not gain weight or did not gain as much weight as would be expected based on the extra calories. This has been seen in studies using almonds, peanuts, pecans, walnuts, and macadamia nuts. How could this be?

Researchers in Ghana, Brazil, and the United States hypothesized that the nuts were not being completely absorbed–that some of the nuts' calories were never getting into the subjects' bodies. To test this, they gave healthy men and women approximately 2 ounces of peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, or peanut flour. Then, they measured how much fat appeared in the subjects' stools. Any fat that showed up in their stools was fat that had not been absorbed and represented calories that were unavailable. The group that ate peanuts had significantly more fat in their stools and lost more calories through this route. Approximately a third of the fat the peanuts should have supplied to the body actually was excreted in the stool. This loss may be due to an inability to absorb all of the fat in peanuts, possibly because the nuts were not completely digested.

While the results of this study should not be taken to mean that nuts can be eaten without regard to their calories, they do suggest that limited amounts of nuts can be used as a part of a healthy diet without necessarily resulting in weight gain.

Traoret CJ, Lokko P, Cruz ACRF, et al. 2008. Peanut digestion and energy balance. Int J Obes 32:322-28.

Thanks to Jay Lavine, MD, for pointing out this article.