Can This Diet Make You Live Longer?

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For years, people have wondered—and researchers have studied—if the vegetarian lifestyle had any positive health effects. Countless studies have been written, but the latest study is one of the largest, reporting that there is a benefit to the vegetarian diet: it might just make you live longer.

The study, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, was a large observational study which followed 73,000 people for six years. During this time, the researchers looked at the type of diet the participants were consuming and their rate and cause of death. They found that the people eating a vegetarian diet had a 12% lower risk of death compared to the other participants.

What is interesting is that the subjects consuming a vegetarian diet had a 19% reduced risk of dying from heart disease compared to the non-vegetarian group. Despite the differences in diet, the study groups all had the same risk of cancer.

Naturally, this has left researchers wondering if the vegetarian lifestyle is truly healthy—and if one of the benefits of the vegetarian diet is longevity.

Before you switch to a vegetarian study, keep these points in mind:

Large observational studies, such as this one, do not show causation, but provide some patterns or relationships based upon a large sample size. Like any observational study, the researchers can’t say that it is specifically the vegetarian lifestyle that led to the lower risk of death—they merely showed a correlation between the vegetarian lifestyle and mortality.

The vegetarian group may also have had some internal biases. This group of vegetarians did not smoke or use alcohol as much as the other participants. This could partially account for the difference in mortality rates.

But the most compelling issue, however, is what attributed to the differences observed between the study groups. The researchers in this study thought that it was the vegetarian lifestyle that accounted for the lower mortality rates, and that it was meat consumption that led to higher mortality.

However, the development of chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, is sensitive to the diet choices. Diets higher in whole grains, fruit vegetables, plant oils, legumes, and soy are very low on the glycemic scale and raise blood sugar and insulin levels modestly. These foods also contain a great deal of nutrients and antioxidants that have been shown to fight damage to arteries. Vegetarians typically have lower blood pressure, blood fats, and levels of internal inflammation. The intake of these foods also has been shown to decrease blood clotting and improve endothelial function within our arteries. This above scenario can account for the decreased risk of developing cardiovascular disease seen in vegetarians.

However, people who consume the same amount of calories but choose different types of food may have an entirely different risk pattern. Those people who eat a traditional “Western” diet eat more meat, sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fat. Although this can lead to higher levels of blood fats and insulin resistance, the levels of inflammation will be much higher in this group of people—and that is the main difference as to the increased incidence of heart disease, as the corresponding damage to the artery wall would be much more prolonged and significant. In comparison, these folks also eat much more trans fat, which is even more harmful to our arteries. If you have a greater chance of developing heart disease, stroke, or diabetes as a result of your diet, this will shorten your life comparatively.

So should you switch to the vegetarian lifestyle and reap all the benefits of a vegetarian diet?

The fact remains, however, that this study opens the doors to meat bashing, which is very unfair. In my opinion, meats, game, poultry, eggs, and dairy that are free-range and organically raised do not impose any harm to human health whatsoever. The consumption of oily fish, although not vegan, has a very beneficial effect upon mortality and chronic disease incidence as well.

At the end of the day, while this study is promising and interesting, it’s just one study—and eating a healthy diet overall is what will make you live longer and healthier.

Sifferlin, A., “Vegetarians May Live Longer,” TIME web site, June 4, 2013.
Johnson, A., “Vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters, study finds,” The Wall Street Journal, June 3, 2013; .
Ginter, E., “Vegetarian diets, chronic diseases and longevity,” Bratisl Lek Listy. 2008; 109(10): 463-6.
Orlich, M., et al., “’Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist health study 2,” JAMA Internal Medicine 2013: 1-8.