Scientists in California have found that vegetarians are less likely to die from any cause or from cause-specific reasons, except for cancer, compared to those who eat meat.
“Certain vegetarian diets are associated with reductions in all causes of death as well as some specific causes including heart disease, kidney-related deaths and endocrine disease-related death such as diabetes,” said lead researcher Dr. Michael Orlich, a preventive medicine specialist at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda. The big question is why, and the study wasn’t designed to answer that, Orlich noted.
“Reductions in meat in the vegetarian diet may be part of it, but it may be due to higher quantities of plant foods,” he added, although it is also possible that vegetarians may lead more healthy lives.
A report published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine showed that over the five-year study, vegetarians were about 12 percent less likely to die from any cause than their meat-eating counterparts. And the survival edge seemed to be stronger in men than women.
In addition, the researchers noted that vegetarians tended to be older and more educated, exercised more and were less likely to drink alcohol or smoke than their carnivorous counterparts.
The study also did not pinpoint which type of vegetarian diet provides the greatest survival benefit because the vegetarian diets were compared to non-vegetarian diets only, not to one another.
The research team now plans to look at the patterns of food consumption seen in each vegetarian diet.
“We want to see what they eat more or less of, and then investigate the effect on mortality or associated with specific foods,” Orlich said. “Are there particular foods that account for most of this apparent association. Is the lack of meat the big issue, or is the amount of plant-based foods responsible?”
Some scientists believe fibre in vegetarian diets may be what’s driving the survival edge. They say it’s not just fruit and vegetables, but all types of fibre [including whole grains] that seems to really reduce health risks.
The new study pushes the literature that science is building about the impact that whole grains and fruits and vegetables can have on health.
A nutritionist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, noted that plant-based diets can be beneficial only if they are done right. “You need to make sure that you have a good nutrient balance despite omission of certain or all animal products,” she added.
For example, she said, some vegetarians may overdo the carbohydrates and fats, which can lead to weight gain and its associated health problems.
This research follows a British study released in January that showed vegetarians had about a third less risk of hospitalization or death from cardiovascular disease than meat-eaters did.
The study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, included nearly 45,000 people from England and Scotland, about a third of who were vegetarians. And the research showed that the vegetarians had a 32 percent lower chance of being hospitalized or dying from heart disease. They also typically had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.