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Veggies smarter or smarties veggies?
— photo: K.V. Srinivasan
|More intelligent kids are more likely to turn vegetarian when they become adults |
BODY, BRAIN BENEFIT: A predominantly vegetarian diet is healthy for the body and the brain.
"CHILDREN AND adolescents who score higher on standard tests of intelligence have a lower risk of coronary heart diseases in later life". With this quotation starts an article published electronically on December 15, 2006 in The British Medical Journal
. Authored by Catherine Gale and colleagues from Southampton, this article is entitled: 'IQ in Children and Vegetarianism in Adulthood: 1970 British Cohort Study.'
A very small per cent
Over 8000 men and women 30 years of age were chosen for analysis. The earlier 1970 study provided the IQ values of each of these when they were 10 years old. The researchers asked each of these about their food habits, and found that 366 of them were vegetarians — a mere 4.5 per cent.
Of these 366, 123 said that they are veggies but yet had fish and chicken in their diet.
What were the common features of the 366 'vegetarians?' First of all, the typical adult vegetarian had an IQ of 105, around five points higher than those who continued to eat meat as they grew up. A significant portion of them belonged to the higher social classes; they had high academic or vocational qualifications, and many of them (74 per cent) were females.
From these data, the researchers concluded that children who are more intelligent are perhaps more likely to turn vegetarian when they become adults. This might also be the reason for the lower incidence of coronary heart diseases, obesity and related conditions.
'Vegetarians are brighter than meat eaters,' headlined some newspapers and columnists while reporting this paper of gale and coworkers. I think this conclusion is overdrawn.
The proper conclusion
The proper conclusion, as the researchers themselves had written, is that the higher IQ at age 10 is associated with increased likelihood of turning vegetarian as an adult. In other words, there is an issue here about which is the cause and which the effect.
It seems to depend on your personal opinion! One set of people seem to be represented by Benjamin Franklin, the scientist and a founding father of the United States of America, who said: "Being vegetarian gives me a clearer head".
The famous British doctor Robert Hutchison belongs to the other set; he said in his address at the 1930 meeting of the British Medical Association: "Vegetarianism is harmless enough, though it is apt to fill a man with wind and self-righteousness." Here then are two opposite examples of how we believe what we want to believe; facts can be picked, chosen and interpreted to suit theory.
Nobel prize winners are generally considered to be among the smarter ones. When I ran through the long list of the awardees, it became clear that a large percentage of them were meat eaters. From our own South Asian continent, we have six awardees, each of whom grew up here as children. These are Tagore, Raman, Abdus Salam, Khorana, Amartya Sen and Muhammad Yunus.
Of these, Raman was perhaps the lone vegetarian, Tagore and Sen more likely 'flexitarians' (or as my cousin Ramasethu dubs 'moukaterians,' meaning given the chance (mouka) they ate meat), and Salam and Yunus certainly meat eaters (I do not know about Khorana).
The case of geniuses
Turning to geniuses, the mathematician Ramanujan suffered in England due to his strict vegetarianism, but his mentor Godfrey Harold Hardy, another genius, ate meat. The great playwright Bernard Shaw was a vegetarian while another Dubliner of equal greatness, James Joyce, was not (though he ate very little and drank a lot).
On the other side is the observation made by Gale and colleagues that those who turned vegans actually had IQ values a full 10 points less (95 on the average). Vegans are people who are extreme — they avoid milk, dairy products and even honey (recall, it comes from bees).
I have encountered a few vegans in the West, and found them odd and with fringe opinions on other matters as well, but certainly they were just as bright as others.
This brings out another point made in the paper, and that is the finding that those who chose to become vegetarians in later life had higher academic or vocational qualifications, but not richer, or of a higher income group, than meat eaters.
Alas, being smarter does not guarantee that you will be richer. It is likely that the fellow who chastised others with: "if you're so smart, why ain't you rich?" was an anti-veggie meat eating rich man.
As in many other matters relating to health and food habits, tradition, beliefs and contemporary culture play important roles here.
Our grandmothers told us to eat vendaikkai (okra or ladies' finger, bhindi) to improve our brains. Jeeves, the smartest butler ever, was credited his enormous IQ thanks to his eating fish, according to his creator P. G. Wodehouse.
One also wonders what the results would have been, had the Gale-type survey had been done in the 1950s rather than now. Recall her subjects are all 'babyboomers' or brought up by them.
The period 1960 - 2000 has been an interesting and rich one when cultures from across the globe came to be well known, appreciated and absorbed.
It is also during this time that we came to know of the bad effects of smoking and drugs, of red meat versus white meat, of the mad cow disease, of the factors in our diet that contribute to heart conditions, diabetes and obesity, the importance of exercise, and the cornucopia of health-promoting materials in greens, fruits and vegetables.
We also came to know that a largely vegetarian diet with fruits, greens and vegetables is likely to have beneficial effects on cognitive function, that is, brain activity.
Also that white meat is better due to its very low fat content. It was also during this period that we became more sensitive of animal rights and welfare, and the associated ethical issues. Thus a survey in the 1950s, I suspect, would have produced different results.
Smartness in the world is not restricted to the vegetarians alone. But it is becoming increasingly clear that a predominantly vegetarian diet is healthy for the body and the brain.
The smart thing to do
Dieticians suggest that if you eat meat, go for fish and fowl more than beef, pork and mutton; and eat fruits and greens in plenty. That is the smartest thing to do.