Does Vegetarianism Really Lower Your Risk of Death? A HealthCentral Explainer
A new study concludes that vegetarians have a lower risk of heart disease. So, should you go ahead and toss your steaks and burgers aside for the summer? Actually, some researchers say the study’s claims aren’t quite substantial enough. Let’s take a look at why.
According to the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from Loma Linda University tracked 73,308 members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church for almost six years because this particular faith promotes a meat-free diet. The participants ranged in age from mid- to upper-50s, with no diagnosis of cancer or cardiovascular disease at the start of the study.
Vegetarians comprised roughly half of the group and included vegans (who eat only plant-based foods), lacto-ovo vegetarians (who also consume eggs and dairy products), pesco-vegetarians (who also eat fish and seafood), and semi-vegetarians (who do not eat red meat, but may eat chicken or fish, dairy products and eggs). Over a six-year span, 2,570 of the participants died. Overall, vegetarians were 12 percent less likely to have died in that time than were the non-vegetarians. Mortality rates were lowest for vegans, lacto-ovo vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians. And male vegetarians were somewhat less likely to have died than female vegetarians.
Why is a plant-based diet healthier?
Researchers don’t really know why a plant-based diet has a protective effect on the heart, but some believe it has to do with the nutrient profile of a vegetarian diet, which typically includes a lot of fiber and less saturated fat. Lead researcher, Dr. Michael J. Olrich, notes that vegetarians tend to be thinner, which is another factor known to have an effect on health outcomes. Also, this group as a whole had lower rates of alcohol and tobacco use.
Even though the study included quite a few participants – more than 73,000 – it’s hard to say what part of a vegetarian lifestyle made them healthier (even more so that “vegetarian” was so loosely defined in this study). In a response published in the same journal issue, Dr. Robert Baron suggests that clinicians need to assess intake of total calories, added sugars, grains, alcohol, fruits, nuts, oils, etc. Also, it’s unclear what the meat-eating group (who did have a higher mortality rate) included in their diet besides meat. For instance, instead of the meat being the culprit, perhaps the meat-eaters weren’t eating enough of other food groups, such as fiber-rich vegetables.
The bottom line
Everyone is different and each body requires a different diet based on clinical history. For some, going meat-free may lead to better overall health, but for those that enjoy meat, it probably won’t kill you. You can still be a vegetarian and eat things that are terrible for you (such as deep-fried veggie spring rolls). The important thing is to do your best to eat a balanced, un-processed diet.
Science Daily. (3 June, 2013). “Vegetarian Diets Associated With Lower Risk of Death.” Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130603164147.htm
The Wall Street Journal. (3 June, 2013). Vegetarians Live Longer Than Meat Eaters, Study Finds.” Retrieved from http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324423904578523190441042514.html