Are Vegetarians Healthier than Omnivores? A Soho Forum Debate

Watch journalist Nina Teicholz face off against David L. Katz, MD, the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, at an event in New York City.


HD Download

There is little or no rigorous evidence that vegetarian/vegan diets are healthier than diets that include meat, eggs, and dairy.

That was the topic of a public debated hosted by the Soho Forum in New York City on May 13, 2019. It featured Nina Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, and David Katz, the founding director of Yale University's Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. Soho Forum director Gene Epstein moderated.

It was an Oxford-style debate, in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains the most ground is victorious. Katz prevailed in the debate by convincing 13 percent of audience members to change their minds.

Arguing for the affirmative was Nina Teicholz, whose 2014 book, The Big Fat Surprise, challenged the conventional wisdom on dietary fat. Teicholz's writing has also been published in The BMJ, The New York TimesThe Wall Street JournalThe AtlanticThe IndependentThe New Yorker, and The Los Angeles Times among others. Teicholz is the Executive Director of The Nutrition Coalition, a non-profit group that promotes evidence-based nutrition policy.

Reason's Alexis Garcia interviewed Teicholz in 2018.

David L. Katz, MD argued for the negative. He's the founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, which practices community and alternative medicine, and is founder/president of the True Health Initiative, a non-profit organization established to promote a healthy diet and lifestyle. The holder of five U.S. patents, Katz has authored roughly 200 peer-reviewed publications and 16 books to date, including textbooks in both nutrition and preventive medicine.

The Soho Forum, which is sponsored by the Reason Foundation, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village.

Music: "Modum" by Kai Engle is licensed under a CC-BY creative commons license.

Produced by Todd Krainin.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Like us on Facebook.

Follow us on Twitter.

Subscribe to our podcast at iTunes.

NEXT: Stossel: Harvard Caves to Student Mob

HD Download

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. There is a simple way to determine the winner in this debate: have the vegetarian eat their diet, have the omnivore follow a strict keto diet, and have researches follow them around for a week to both track and smell their bowel movements. The winner will have the more pungent bowel movements.

    Related: If you are worried about finding researchers, I am available and I work cheap.

    1. I think you have that ass-backwards, Crusty.

  2. No, they are religious fanatics. Next question.

    1. Nothing says “Free Minds” like dismissing whole thought systems with some hand waving and a misguided conflation with “religion.”

      1. It is half joking.

        Humans are omnivores, and presumably an ideal diet would include plants and meats in some proportion. To specifically say an exclusively plant based diet is most healthy is a proclamation of faith.

        1. To specifically say an exclusively plant based diet is most healthy is a proclamation of faith.

          Agreed, since it’s objectively not. One might argue that plant-based + dairy is most healthy, but arguing that 100% vegan is most healthy ignores the functional impossibility of getting Vitamin B12 from plant-based sources. Calcium is tough, too.

          1. Vitamin B12 is not derived from meat. It’s produced by bacteria. While it true that it is most easily obtained through animal-based products, it is also easily obtainable as supplements, as well as from fortified food (including nutritional yeast) and from cultured foods such as kefir, tempeh, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut and pickles. Dried foods can also be a good source, especially nori. Vitamin B12 is not an issue for any vegan or vegetarian with a brain and a little common sense 🙂

            1. Finally someone understands the difference between bacteria and animals. B12 ONLY comes from bacteria. The only reason we can get bacteria from animals and not from plants is because animals eat bacteria and plants don’t.

              That said – B12 deficiency is an actual problem for most vegetarians (98% of the world’s vegetarians probably live in India). We don’t get a usable form of B12 from fermented foods or from feeding our own gut bacteria. There are other reasons we benefit from those but it ain’t B12. Nor do artificial supplements necessarily produce the bioeffective form of B12.

              The reason ‘pure’ vegetarianism can work in India without producing B12 deficiency is because the food is ‘dirty’. So people are eating bacteria and insects and such without realizing it. Don’t need much to get the B12 – and veggie is fine for getting protein. In a highly processed food environment (like the West), ‘compromises’ need to be made. Maybe via non-fraudulent supplements – or by making some compromise re milk, eggs, fish, or insects.

              1. Those are all good points. I consume quite a few cultured foods — dairy-free yogurt, for example. Basically, most dried foods, cultured foods, and my wife’s aged vegan cheeses, are, as you say, “dirty” in the sense that they are fairly loaded with bacteria, at least compared to their fresh, well-washed, counterparts. Depending on the type of bacteria present, which depends on the specifics of their curing, they may contain B12 in significant quantities.

                Yes, and I also take B12 supplements, which, in my age group, are recommended even for carnivores. Again, common sense.

                1. I eat with keto intent but the plate is overwhelmingly plant. Prob 80%+ little of which is grain/sugar/starch. Mealtime calories are mostly (and snacks almost entirely) fat from olives/avoc/nuts/seeds. I much prefer being in steady ketosis than being in the up/down of carb/insulin.

                  I was never fully interested in solely veggie but I did want more plant and so found out about the B12. Turns out that you can get enough from 1 oyster every three days or 2 servings of fish a week or a couple slices of salami and cheese a day. Basically a veggie who cheats a bit and doesn’t have to think much about what I eat – and where a steak or burger is a tasty occasional treat rather than a core part of every meal.

                  Turning eating into either/or is a big part of the problem imo. The French/Italians have the right idea about eating. Stress should never be part of any meal and mixing eating and stress can never lead to a good place.

                  1. Sounds like you have a good plan which suits your needs. Just for kicks, I did develop a keto-vegan diet plan. Not hard to do, actually. Making it really good tasting is dependent on the cook. 🙂

          2. “but arguing that 100% vegan is most healthy ignores the functional impossibility of getting Vitamin B12 ”

            No. For one, that sounds like you are pushing an argument that sounds like an appeal to futility.

            Begin vegan doesn’t mean that you can’t suppliment. Heck, you don’t even need to if you drink any one of the milk substitutes, that like real dairy milk, has some vitamins, minerals and other things added to it with b12 being in so many vegan foods.

            That aside, Square, did you know that farm animals are given supplements, including B12?

            Most of the b12 that a meat eater gets from his / her beef, chicken, lamb, etc. is from the animals that are given vitamins. Thus you are indirectly taking a b12 pill via your dinner.

            “One might argue that plant-based + dairy is most healthy”

            One can argue anything that they want. But starting off with evidence would be great. Since anyone can find that milk messes with IGF-1 levels, contains saturated fats, has animal proteins which contribute to inflammation and for some people an immune response, comes with all the hormones that the cow had in it and more if they are cattle that are given hormones which is likely how most people get mass produced low cost milk and not some special high cost grass fed organic milk. Milk has cholesterol in it. Then you of course have the huge environmental issue with farm animals and ethical issues for those that care about that.

            Even if milk was 100% as healthy as a non-dairy milk you are still causing way more environmental damage by eating and drinking dairy and also the animal welfare that I alluded to above.

            Milk, while I remember how good it tastes, even outside of the health issues with it is just gross when you think about it. I mean why is cows milk good but we don’t drink dog milk?

            Milk is just not a good choice even if it was actually good for you. It is bad for the environment.

            Side note – the thing that makes me laugh the most at people’s cognitive dissonance is when I see someone mowing down a steak, burger, or some other meat or dairy meal when they are an environmentalist and care about the planet.

    2. “No, they are religious fanatics. Next question.”

      Um..You are thinking about the tiny slice of vegans that are fanatics about it. The article is VEGETARIANISM which is not fanatical veganism.

      As a vegan I can tell you that 5% of the vegans are poisonous and are the ones that you hear from and that like to tell you how to eat and live. Most vegans are such silently and do not get involved in your business. But, since the 5% a-holes are loud about it the assumption is that all vegans are represented by that loud 5% slice, which we clearly are not.

      1. In my experience Vegetarians are like recently converted full-immersion Southern Baptists; to shut them up about it, you pretty much have to tender them insensible. Vegans are even worse; they are the reformed drunks of the dietary world.

        Now, I smoke cigars and watch porn. I’m in no position to condemn anyone’s vices, provided that stick to adult volunteers. But as Screwtape points out, obsessing about food – even in the name of Health – is a form of gluttony. A vice.

      2. Yep. My wife and I have been vegan for years. It has nothing to do with religion or anything else. We simply like the idea that we don’t have to harm animals in order to eat healthy, nutritious, and delicious, food. Our favorite couple keeps keto. It’s not a problem for us. We don’t put our dietary choices on anyone else — it’s just what we prefer. But, there are SOME vegans out there… well, yeah, you know them 🙂

  3. No offense, guys, but this is a dumb debate between two over-positioned ‘self-help’ people.

    A vegetarian or vegan diet can be very unhealthy, as can a meat-based diet.

    Adding meat to a healthy vegetarian diet does not make it more healthy. Removing meat from an unhealthy meat-based diet makes the diet less healthy. Adding a lot of meat to a healthy vegetarian diet does make it less healthy (yes, saturated fat and cholesterol are not the villains they once were, but there are still such things as folacin anemia and health problems related to not getting enough fiber).

    In short – you don’t eat meat but all you eat is potato chips and white pasta? Very unhealthy. Your diet is 100% beef jerky? Very unhealthy.

    Aggregating all people who eat meat and comparing them to all people who don’t tells you exactly nothing.

    1. Well said.

    2. Your diet is 100% beef jerky? Very unhealthy.

      Says you.

      1. I am good since he didn’t say 100% bacon.

        1. ^This!
          Steve Jobs is dead.
          Johnny Cash is Dead.
          Bob Hope is dead.

          We have no jobs, no cash and no hope. Everyone pray for the continued good health of Kevin Bacon. 🙂

  4. Are Vegetarians Healthier than Omnivores?

    Perhaps. However, from my experience vegans will initiate conversation about diet more than either vegetarians or omnivores.

    1. Paleo-diet people try hard to give them a run for their money.

      In my experience, most people I know who are vegan or vegetarian don’t get all preachy about it or go out of their way to mention it. But the ones who do are really annoying.

      1. Best response to the Paleo diet people:

        Seen years ago on a trailer for a stand-up comedy show (I don’t remember the comic).

        Of course cavemen were more fit. I don’t have to chase that pint of Häagen-Dazs around all day and then beat it over the head with a stick.

        Serious response:

        The Paleo Diet people are missing an important point. A major difference driving differences in average weight between modern humans and paleolithic peoples is not just what they ate, but the amount of human energy that had to be spent just on gathering more food. The bulk of their calories expended went to finding more food.

  5. This is the cultural debate I’ve been waiting for.

    1. It will decide Everything.

  6. The healthiest diet is Keto except when your vegan daughter decides to coax amazing flavors out of fresh vegetables. It’s complicated.

  7. Vegetarians tend to do a lot of other healthy things. Comparing vegetarians who do those other healthy things to non-vegetarians who do those other healthy things might be telling.

    Adventists are disproportionately vegetarian, and they apparently live a lot longer than other Americans. They also don’t smoke, drink alcohol, . . . Well, I mean, there are Adventists who do those things in secret like there are Adventists who cheat on their spouses in secret, I’m sure. The point is that it’s not just that they’re disproportionately vegetarian. It’s also that they like, say, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Southern Baptists, and other fundamentalists who may not drink and smoke like the rest of the general population–Adventists also don’t eat meat, and the average Adventist’s lifespan is longer than other fundamentalists who do eat meat.

    1. When controlled for other behavioral factors (levels of exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, etc) the difference between omnivores and vegetarians and vegans shrinks to zero. But most vegetarian loons aren’t willing to talk about that bit of information.

      1. Speaking as a vegan, your statement is accurate, at least on the macro level. On the micro level, of course, individual “lifestyles” are much to complex and varied to rely much on statistics. Therefore, we should all make our decision based on the available knowledge, our perceived personal needs, and a good helping of common sense.

  8. Humans are omnivores.

    The ideal diet for humans reflects this.

    Eliminating part of that diet is, by definition, unhealthy. A human can survive on a diet of one or the other but, without active steps to mitigate the lacking side of the diet, the human will not thrive.

    1. That’s the naturalist fallacy, holmes. Just because humans are naturally omnivores, it does not follow that humans will live the longest under an omnivore diet.

      1. And yet they do.

        Perhaps ‘fallacy’ is not the word you wanted?

  9. Teicholz is a fraud peddling some of the worst industry funded science ever done to a bunch of people who like to hear good news about their bad habits. I did an article on this a while back where I debunk the majority of fake science advocated by people like Teicholz.

  10. Vegetarians might be healthy, but they never seem to look healthy. They always have a pasty look, like smokers, but less desiccated.

    1. You mean weak-looking folks like Carl Lewis? Or these guys —

      Don’t generalize. There are significant numbers of athletes who are vegetarian or even vegan. Are there HUGE numbers of such? Of course not — vegetarians and vegans might make up ten percent of the population. And, quite frankly, I think that number is probably high.

  11. From all the reading I’ve done over the years this seems to be the case:

    The modern western diet is shit. We eat too much meat and fat, and also too many grains.

    If one reads between the lines on a variety of studies and kind of thinks it all through it seems the healthiest diet is probably something like 70-90% plants, with as little of that as possible coming from grains which are mostly shit filler food.

    Full vegetarian is basically retarded… You can supplement and not die, but the easiest way to be healthy is to eat a ton of fruit and veg, few grains, and stack meat/dairy on top of it in reasonable amounts.

    All that said, even a fairly normal diet that’s just a BIT better than the typical died isn’t that horrible. Don’t get fat, and eat a mix of stuff, and most people will live to be old enough. A few years swing one way or another in your 70s or 80s really isn’t that huge a deal IMO.

  12. By the way, I do recommend people read Nina Teicholz’s book, The Big Fat Surprise. By the way, Teicholz’s book is being made into a documentary, but I don’t know when it is coming out.

    While you’re at it, reading any of Gary Taubes’ books will give you great insight to the problems of nutritional science and dietary recommendations. Like Teicholz, Taubes is an award-winning science journalist and one trained in the hard sciences.

    Tim Noakes is also good in showing how politicized is this field of science. You might also want to look into the work of Richard David Feinman, Joanna Blythman, and Marion Nestle.

    If anyone is interested, here is Teicholz’s response to this debate:

Please to post comments