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Being a vegetarian is genetic and could explain why some people can’t give up meat

The global trend of reducing meat consumption has been picking up pace, as initiatives such as “Meatless Mondays” gain popularity. Yet, the decision to go vegetarian might not just be a matter of personal or ethical choice, it may be genetic.

A fascinating study from Northwestern Medicine posits that a person’s genetic composition might significantly influence their ability to commit to a strict vegetarian diet.

Understanding vegetarianism

While vegetarianism is lauded for its potential health benefits and ethical considerations, there’s a conundrum that has puzzled many. Why do a significant number of self-proclaimed vegetarians continue to consume fish, poultry, or red meat?

Dr. Nabeel Yaseen is professor emeritus of pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He stated that nearly 48 to 64% of vegetarians admit to occasionally consuming meat. This stat implies that external environmental factors or internal biological constraints might be at play.

“It seems there are more people who would like to be vegetarian than actually are, and we think it’s because there is something hard-wired here that people may be missing,” Dr. Yaseen noted.

Genetics and vegetarians

To delve into the genetic underpinnings of vegetarianism, researchers at Northwestern Medicine undertook a comprehensive study. They analyzed UK Biobank genetic data, comparing 5,324 strict vegetarians with 329,455 control subjects.

Notably, all participants were of white Caucasian descent to ensure a uniform sample and eliminate potential ethnic biases.

The findings were illuminating. Three genes were found to have a significant correlation with vegetarianism, with an additional 31 genes showing potential association. Intriguingly, two of the three primary genes identified, namely NPC1 and RMC1, play roles in lipid metabolism and brain function.

Dr. Yaseen hypothesized that certain lipids, present in meat but not in plant products, might be essential for some people. “Maybe people whose genetics favor vegetarianism can naturally produce these lipid components,” he speculated, though he emphasized that this remains a theory, and further studies are required..

Despite the burgeoning interest in plant-based diets, the majority of the global population continues to consume meat. In the U.S., vegetarians constitute only 3 to 4% of the populace. Similarly, the U.K. reports that only 2.3% of adults and 1.9% of children identify as vegetarians.

This prevalent preference for meat prompts further investigation into its underlying reasons. Dr. Yaseen posits that, akin to one’s initial reaction and subsequent acclimatization to alcohol or coffee, there might be a component in meat, possibly a lipid, that individuals might inherently crave or need.

More and religious beliefs

Furthermore, if genetics is a determinant in one’s vegetarian inclinations, what implications does it hold for individuals abstaining from meat due to religious or moral beliefs?

Dr. Yaseen explains, “While religious and moral considerations certainly play a major role in the motivation to adopt a vegetarian diet, our data suggest that the ability to adhere to such a diet is constrained by genetics.”

Concluding his thoughts, Dr. Yaseen expressed hope that future research would shed more light on the physiological differences between vegetarians and non-vegetarians. This knowledge, he believes, can pave the way for more tailored dietary recommendations and better meat alternatives. His ultimate goal is to cater to the genetic predispositions of both vegetarians and meat eaters.

This pivotal study has the distinction of being the first peer-reviewed study examining the relationship between genetics and strict vegetarianism.

This full study, titled “Genetics of Vegetarianism: A Genome-Wide Association Study,” was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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