Background: Vegetarian diets have been associated with lower risk of chronic disease, but little is known about the health effects of low meat diets and the reliability of self-reported vegetarian status. We aimed to establish an analytical cohort over-represented with vegetarians, pescetarians and 1 day/week meat consumers, and to describe their lifestyle and dietary characteristics. In addition, we were able to compare self-reported vegetarians with vegetarians whose status has been confirmed by their response on the extensive food frequency questionnaire (FFQ).
Study methods: Embedded within the Netherlands Cohort Study (n = 120,852; including 1150 self-reported vegetarians), the NLCS-Meat Investigation Cohort (NLCS-MIC) was defined by combining all FFQ-confirmed-vegetarians (n = 702), pescetarians (n = 394), and 1 day/week meat consumers (n = 1,396) from the total cohort with a random sample of 2-5 days/week- and 6-7 days/week meat consumers (n = 2,965 and 5,648, respectively).
Results: Vegetarians, pescetarians, and 1 day/week meat consumers had more favorable dietary intakes (e.g., higher fiber/vegetables) and lifestyle characteristics (e.g. lower smoking rates) compared to regular meat consumers in both sexes. Vegetarians adhered to their diet longer than pescetarians and 1 day/week meat consumers. 75% of vegetarians with a prevalent cancer at baseline had changed to this diet after diagnosis. 50% of self-reported vegetarians reported meat or fish consumption on the FFQ. Although the misclassification that occurred in terms of diet and lifestyle when merely relying on self-reporting was relatively small, the impact on associations with disease risk remains to be studied.
Conclusion: We established an analytical cohort over-represented with persons at the lower end of the meat consumption spectrum which should facilitate prospective studies of major cancers and causes of death using ≥20.3 years of follow-up.