Though the fountain of youth may be a myth, research is revealing the link between what we consume and the quality and length of our lives. It’s pretty simple – a better diet means better health and a longer life, and recent research shows this might mean cutting meat out of your diet.
A new study published in JAMA’s Internal Medicine† finds that vegetarian diets are associated with a lower risk of early death — about 12 percent lower over a period of about six years of follow-up.
Researchers based the study on a one-time survey of over 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists, members of a religion that promotes healthful diets and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. While not all members of the church are vegetarians, a model diet is often one that is meatless.
“This study provides additional evidence that vegetarian diets are associated with improved health outcomes, including all-cause mortality”
To help researchers categorize their diets, participants responded to a questionnaire about dietary habits. Researchers used the responses to divide participants into five groups:
- 48.2% non-vegetarian (meat-eaters)
- 5.5% semi-vegetarian
- 9.8% pesco-vegetarian (diets including fish and seafood)
- 28.9% were lacto-ovo-vegetarian (diets including dairy and egg products)
- 7.6% vegan (diets excluding all animal products)
The subjects were followed from 2002 to 2007 and during that time 2,570 participants died. Each year, seven out of every 1,000 non-vegetarians died, compared to five or six vegetarians out of every 1,000 participants. The results reflected a 12% lower risk of mortality for vegetarians over the study period.
Those on a vegetarian diet tended to have a lower rate of death due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and renal disorders such as kidney failure. The longevity link was also more significant in men than in women. Researchers found that vegetarian men were less likely to die from cardiovascular disease and conditions such as ischemic heart disease (reduced blood flow to the heart). Women, however, did not see any significant reductions in death from cardiovascular disease.
The study did not determine conclusively whether the decreased mortality risk was the direct result of a plant-based diet or the result of minimal meat and animal-product consumption.
Vegetarian participants tended to be older, more highly educated, less likely to smoke or drink, less likely to be obese, less likely to have conditions such as high blood pressure, and more likely to exercise regularly. These lifestyle choices not tracked in the study may have affected the mortality rates.
Still, the study “provides additional evidence that vegetarian diets are associated with improved health outcomes, including all-cause mortality,” says Dr. Robert Baron, vice chief of General Internal Medicine at UCSF Medical Center, who provided commentary on the study.
In addition, he notes that other factors, including how much sugar, salt, and refined grains we consume, are also an important part of evaluating the healthfulness of our diets.
The Bottom Line
While the study points to the benefits of consuming a vegetarian diet, the latest government statistics indicate that most Americans need to increase their intake of fruits and vegetables (F&V).
While states like California may have higher intake rates of F&Vs and states in the diabesity belt such as Mississippi have low rates of consumption, the CDC’s 2009 State Indicator Report showed that just 14% of adults and 9.5% of adolescents consume the recommended servings of fruits & vegetables on a daily basis.
From a practical standpoint, it would be difficult for Americans to consume little to no meat. In the past decade, we have reduced our consumption of red meat and increased our intake of fish and chicken. However, weaning completely off of meat is unlikely, especially in men.
Going meatless may not improve our health either especially if meat is replaced with simple carbs such as pasta. In the past 20 years, Americans have replaced fats with simple carbohydrates and the result has been a big uptick in obesity and type 2 diabetes.
If meat was replaced with high quality foods like legumes, nuts, vegetables, and fruit then most likely health outcomes would improve. But, eating healthy and/or vegetarian takes time and energy – something that seems to be in short supply for adults and teenagers.
The important message from this and other studies is that increasing our intake of fruits and vegetables is important. How can you do this? By replacing simple carbs with complex carbs. Some examples include:
- For breakfast, replace home fries or toast with sliced tomato and avocado
- At lunch, skip the sandwich and have a salad topped with beans (garbanzo, black beans, navy beans)
- For dinner, skip the pasta, bread, or rice, and replace with two side dishes of vegetables
- For dessert, swap ice cream with a bowl of fresh berries
If you must eat meat, consume a small portion (4 to 6 oz) and select from high-quality sources such as legumes, fish, and organic, free-range chicken. If you eat red meat on occasion, choose lean cuts and grass-fed beef. It’s a nearly foolproof plan – at the prices stores charge for these better-quality cuts, you’ll only want to buy small portions!
The international campaign Meatless Monday was developed to encourage people to not eat meat on Mondays and to improve their health and the health of the planet. You can find great recipe ideas on their website.
† JAMA or Journal of the American Medical Association formerly called the Archives of Internal Medicine
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.