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Jun 05, 2013

Vegetarians May Live Longer Than Meat Eaters

New research confirms that vegetarian dietary patterns can extend longevity.

Not a big fan of meat? A recent study shows that people who stick to some form of a vegetarian diet—vegetarians, semi-vegetarians and vegans—have a lower risk of death compared to people who consume meat on a regular basis.

This study was one of the largest of its kind, attempting to verify whether meat-free diets can help us live longer. Smaller studies in the past have researched this topic, but many had conflicting findings. Some found that a vegetarian diet could reduce risk of death, while others found no difference in longevity between meat eaters and non-meat eaters.  But the most recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association may settle this dispute.

This study, referred to as the Adventist Health Study 2, included nearly 96,500 U.S. and Canadian adults with a wide array of eating patterns. Based on food questionnaires, participants were put into two broad categories: vegetarians or non-vegetarians. The non-vegetarians reported consuming any type of meat, including fish, at least once a week, while vegetarians either consumed meat and fish very rarely or not at all. And among vegetarians, subjects fell into one of four categories—vegans, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, pesco-vegetarians, and semi-vegetarians. Vegans avoid meat, fish and dairy products, while lacto-ovo-vegetarians avoid meat, but still consume eggs and dairy. Pesco-vegetarians consume fish while avoiding meat, and semi-vegetarians eat meat and fish, but infrequently.

Participants were followed for nearly six years, and after tracking their health and dietary patterns, researchers found that overall, vegetarians had significantly lower risk of death compared to non-vegetarians. When the four categories of vegetarians were compared individually with the meat-eaters, pesco-vegetarians had the lowest risk of death. Interestingly, researchers also found larger results among men, meaning there was a stronger association between the vegetarian diet and reduced mortality risk among men than women.

Based on these results, should we all swear off meat completely? Not necessarily.  This study showed that a wide array of vegetarian patterns were associated with reduced risk of death. Although vegetarians who completely avoided meat and dairy products saw health benefits, so did those who ate fish on a regular basis and/or rarely consumed meat. Thus, all types of vegetarians likely benefit from both eating more fruits and vegetables and limiting intake of red meat. We know that certain foods that are common in a vegetarian diet, like fruits, vegetables and nuts, can promote better health. We also know that eating meat, especially red meat, on a regular basis can increase risk of heart disease, and that lean meats and fish can actually promote better health. So whether you’re a vegetarian or not, it’s important to make the healthiest choices for your type of diet.

Questions for You to Consider

  • Is a vegetarian diet heart-healthy?
  • Some studies have suggested that a vegetarian diet may promote health benefits, like lowering risk of death. This is likely due to the fact that many foods common in the vegetarian diet, including fruit, vegetables and nuts have been shown to have many health benefits and improve heart health. Also, research has shown that reducing consumption of red meat and increasing consumption of fish and lean meats can help reduce heart disease risk.

    Get CardioSmart tips on how to eat for better health.

  • Should I eat seafood?
  • The 2010 Dietary Guidelines encourage everyone to eat at least 2 servings (8 oz) of seafood a week. The health benefits of fish and shellfish as a source for low-fat protein heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids outweigh the risks from mercury and other pollutants, which are sometimes found in these foods.


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