Why vegetarians tend to live longer than meat eaters

by Jennifer Bowden / 06 July, 2018

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It's true, vegetarians live longer than meat eaters, but it’s not just because of their diet. 

QUESTIONI’ve adjusted my diet to Heart Foundation guidelines following a stenting, and it’s now almost 90% plant-based. However, an acquaintance says I shouldn’t eat any animal products, as the science shows even small amounts increase the risk of death. She believes animal products are only included in the guidelines because people won’t accept a diet without them. What does the science really say?

ANSWERVegetarians live longer than meat eaters, but probably not because they’re vegetarians. It’s a bit of a paradox, but one that researchers continue to study.

On average, vegetarians are more health-conscious than omnivores, which may explain why they live longer. They are less likely to smoke, drink alcohol excessively and be inactive or overweight. It’s not that meat eaters are slovenly, but rather that vegetarians tend to have a healthier lifestyle.

Still, this is not to say a vegetarian diet isn’t beneficial. Although evidence showing a connection to longevity is still under debate, it has consistently been linked to a reduced risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

However, studies have generally compared vegetarian diets with a typical Western diet laden with processed and fast foods.

But in February, Italian researchers published the results of a clinical trial comparing a low-calorie vegetarian diet with a low-calorie Mediterranean diet, based on cardiovascular risk among healthy adults.

Both diets improved heart health in the short term, with the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet (dairy and eggs, but no meat) showing a greater reduction in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, although the Mediterranean diet was more effective in improving triglyceride levels and some inflammatory biomarkers.

Remember that these participants already had low cardiovascular risk, and it was a low-calorie diet aimed at weight loss.

The same may not be true for those at greater risk of cardiovascular disease, or those not wanting to restrict calories or lose weight.

Nonetheless, they concluded both a vegetarian diet and a Mediterranean diet – including poultry, fish, some red meat, fruit, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and oils – were heart-healthy options.

On a slightly different note, one of the key recommendations in the World Cancer Research Fund’s 2018 report “Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective” was to limit red and processed meat.

There is strong evidence that they cause bowel cancer – our second-biggest cancer killer.

If you choose to eat red meat, limit yourself to no more than three portions a week – 350-500g cooked weight – and, ideally, consume little or no processed meat.

Regardless of whether we eat meat, the health benefits of having more fruit and vegetables are well established. In 2014, researchers from University College London examined data from more than 65,000 English adults and found that the more fruit and vegetables they ate, the lower the death risk, with the greatest benefits coming from seven-plus portions a day.

In 2017, a review of long-term studies concluded that eating fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer and all-cause death.

Food is about more than nutrients, however. It’s also about taste, enjoyment, socialising and celebrating.

If you enjoy meat, that is as valid a reason as any to continue eating it, in combination with fruit, vegetables, whole grains, some dairy products, nuts, seeds and healthy oils.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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