In America, vegetarianism has never been seen as something to aspire to. Vegetarians often find themselves having to defend their choices and fend off health concerns. “Where do you get your protein?” “Aren’t you hungry all the time?” Over the years, we’ve painted a picture of vegetarians and vegans as being weak, anemic, and lacking in proper nutrition.
But the latest research indicates exactly the opposite: Vegetarians are healthier and live longer than their meat-eating counterparts. On average, eight years longer!
The best evidence comes from decades-long studies of over 100,000 Seventh Day Adventists, who tend to abstain from smoking and drinking but also have a large variety of dietary habits. These studies, the latest of which is halfway completed, show a clear trend between the amount of meat consumed and the severity of various chronic diseases, supporting evidence from another study that shows that consuming a larger variety of animal products leads to higher BMI (see chart).
To understand how vegetarianism can unlock the secret to long life, we need to understand the conditions that shorten our life. In America, several diseases play a part in our mortality. Heart disease, cancer, stroke, COPD, and diabetes are among the top ten causes of death in America, and all of theses conditions seem closely linked to our diets.
The study identifies a number of ways that vegetarian diets can contribute to a healthier and longer life when compared to non-vegetarian diets:
- Vegans have lower rates of obesity, which contributes to several chronic diseases.
- Vegetarians and vegans have lower rates of diabetes and are less insulin-resistant.
- Many vegetarian foods protect against cancer, especially those with high antioxidants.
- Vegetarians have less hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Vegetarians have a lower rate of cardiovascular disease.
The study also counters arguments that vegetarians do not have all the nutrients they require, in particular Vitamin D, which is mostly only found in animal sources. (However, people switching from nonvegetarian diets to vegetarian ones should be careful to monitor their nutrient intake of B12.)
The larger variety of foods—such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains—consumed by vegetarians can provide numerous benefits. Other studies have shown that vegan diets can reverse heart disease, that meat-eaters were more susceptible to cancers, and that even COPD can be prevented and treated with plant-based diets.
Learn more about the health benefits of different food groups, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and proteins (both animal- and non-animal-based) in our MyPlate Monday series.