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Vegetarianism could have an unforeseen effect for men — it could result in lowered sperm count.
That's the word from a new study presented recently in Hawaii.
However, look a little closer and it looks like the answer to the question that forms the title of this article could be "yes...and then again, no".
That's a big difference, right? Well, yes, but to put it into perspective, normal sperm count is over 20m/ml, and the WHO calls anything over 15m/ml normal, so actually both groups were doing OK in sperm count terms.
When this study first came to light, that fact apparently wasn't available to the slew of headline writers cranking out corkers like "vegan men may be lowering their chances of conception".
What the study emphatically doesn't show is that vegetarian men have sperm counts so low that they might cause difficulty conceiving.
It' also not a study on the average vegetarian. Leaving aside jokes about how the average vegetarian is a bearded, sandal-wearing hill-walker in a bobble hat (never true, even less so now), the average vegetarian definitely isn't a Californian Seventh-Day Adventist. The Seventh Day Adventists are a sect who believe that meat is impure, so they're strict vegetarians for religious reasons, while the average vegetarian in the developed world isn't motivated by theological concerns. Could that have effects on lifestyle, or on dietary choices? The study isn't really saying.
Over four years, the researchers who ran the study looked at the sperm quality of the local Seventh-Day Adventists and compared them to the general population.
One fact that stands out is that the general population had higher sperm motility — the measure of whether sperm are swimming or not.
This concern about sperm comes as part of a wider web of worries about sperm quality and quantity as sperm counts have fallen consistently for decades across the Western world. It's not clear why this is — it could be lifestyle, but it could be some other cause. Many people are inclined to blame pesticides in food, and there is strong evidence that pesticides in food can affect sperm quality.
So if it wasn't being vegetarian that caused the drop in sperm count (and it may have been, but it may not have been), what else could it be? It could have been that the Adventists were eating more soy to make up for the lack of meat in their diets. Soy is a popular replacement for meat among vegetarians, but it has dangerous psuedoestrogenic effects in the human body, binding to the receptors for estrogen and messing with hormonal balance. So that could be the cause.
The study's leader, Dr Eliza Orzylowska, agrees with this theory, saying, "the theory we came up with is that vegetarians are replacing meat with soy, which contains phytoestrogens and could be affecting fertility. For children who have grown up with those kinds of diets, it may have impacted on sperm quality from puberty."