Don't worry about that new study.

F&W Editors
Updated May 24, 2017

Judging by the headlines, a new Cornell study portends doom for vegetarians. Researchers found that in parts of the world where plant-based diets are commonplace, people tend to have a gene that increases the risk of deadly disease. Sounds dire, right? Before you swear off kale, consider what the study really says.

At issue is a genetic mutation that scientists are calling the "." By chance, it probably occurred "," says Tom Brenna, one of the study's authors. Because the mutation improves the body's ability to process fats from plants, evolution made it prominent, over a great many generations, in populations that consumed little meat and fish. Here's the problem: Our modern diets, which are high in bad fats, could theoretically turn the gene from an asset to a liability. 

The mutation helps change vegetable oils into nutrients that our bodies need. Among them is omega-6 arachidonic acid, which, because humans need it to live, was a terrific thing for our genetic forebears. However, excessive levels of arachidonic acid cause inflammation, which promotes cancer and heart disease. And because modern-day meals include lots of dietary omega-6 fats, today the gene is a problem.

What can you do if you have the gene? (You certainly might: Researchers found it in two-thirds of tested residents of Pune, India, where a vegetarian diet has been common for generations, but almost 20 percent of tested Kansans had the mutation too.) Avoid high-omega-6 vegetable oils, says Brenna, and favor fats that provide omega 3s. Olive oil is a good bet. Safflower is not.

And, let's be clear: This is a hereditary mutation, which means you get it from a parent. You won't spontaneously mutate it after a kale salad binge. So, please, ignore headlines like the New York Post's, which declares "Being a vegetarian could kill you." That's not true! Being a vegetarian could kill your descendants.



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