Vegetarians may live longer than meat-lovers, new research suggests.
Scientists in California analyzed the diets of 73,300 Seventh Day Adventists, and found that vegetarians were less likely to die from any cause or from cause-specific reasons, except for cancer, compared to those who ate 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.
The research was published online June 3 in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
For the study, the researchers used a food questionnaire to assess dietary patterns and looked at men and women who adhered to one of five diets: non-vegetarian; semi-vegetarian (eats meat or fish no more than once a week); pesco-vegetarian (consumes seafood); lacto-ovo-vegetarian (includes both dairy products and eggs), and vegans, who don't eat any animal products.
During the course of the more than five-year study, 2,570 people died. But vegetarians were about 12 percent less likely to die from any cause than their meat-eating counterparts, the study showed. 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?"
Nancy Copperman, a dietician at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. , said that the fiber in vegetarian diets may be what's driving the survival edge.
"It's not just fruit and vegetables, but all types of fiber [including whole grains] that seems to really reduce health risks," she said. "The new study pushes the literature that we are building about the impact that whole grains and fruits and vegetables can have on your health."
But Rebecca Solomon, 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.
"My general advice is that you don't need to be a vegetarian to improve your health and lifespan," she said. "Eating lean protein such as poultry and fish and following some of the principles of the Mediterranean diet, which includes generous amounts of vegetables, fruits and whole grains and is not red-meat heavy, can be very beneficial."
For a diehard vegan like Stephanie Prather, 45, the news may come as no surprise.
Prather hasn't eaten any animal products in more than two years, and actually changed careers midstream to become a vegan pastry chef. Her impetus was a high-profile documentary about the benefits of a plant-based diet.
Not only does she feel better, Prather said, but she has lost close to 20 pounds since giving up all animal products in her diet.
The latest 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 than non-vegetarians.