Do Vegetarians Live Longer?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Vegetarian Diet

What Are The Health Benefits Of A Vegetarian Diet?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

“Vegetarians don’t live longer, it just seems that way.” Many of you have probably heard that joke, but is it true? Are vegetarians healthier? Do vegetarians live longer? Is meat going to kill you? Let’s take a deep dive into the pros and cons of vegetarianism.

What Is Vegetarianism?

Vegetarianism encompasses a wide range of diets. At one extreme is the vegan diet. Vegans eat only plant derived foods. They don’t eat fish, meat, milk, eggs, or honey. It also goes without saying they eat only whole foods (whole grains, plant proteins, and fruits & vegetables) and avoid things like sodas, sugary foods, junk foods, and convenience foods. The most extreme form of veganism, popularized by such recent movies as “Eating You Alive” and “What the Health,” also eliminates all oils. This keeps fat at <10% of total calories.

do vegetarians live longerTo avoid confusion, I will refer to this as a “very low fat vegan diet.”  I will use the term “vegan diet” to refer to the more common veganism that includes vegetable oils in the diet. The vegan diet is still 100% plant based. It is also still relatively low in fat, generally in the 20-30% range. Since the fat comes from plants, it is predominantly the healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Lacto-ovo vegetarians add low fat dairy foods and eggs to a plant based diet. The Ornish diet is a modified lacto-ovo vegetarian diet that also eliminates all oils and keeps fat at <10% of calories. Pesco-vegetarians add fish to a plant based diet, and semi-vegetarians add limited amounts of meat to a plant based diet.

Can Vegetarian Diets Reverse Atherosclerosis?

Let me start with studies on the very low fat vegan and Ornish diets. In addition to the diet, both programs emphasize regular exercise and stress reduction practices. Adherents to both plans generally achieve a serum total cholesterol of 150 or less. The Ornish diet and lifestyle program was designed to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and it has been very well studied from that perspective. In studies of patients with severe atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) for periods of up to 5 years, the Ornish program results in a significant reduction in the degree of atherosclerosis (unclogs the arteries), inflammation, cardiac events (heart attack, stroke, etc.), and cardiac deaths (H.S. Dod et al, American Journal of Cardiology, 105: 362-367, 2010 ). vegetarianism good for the heartStudies with the very low fat vegan diet are more limited, but suggest that it also reverses atherosclerosis and reduces cardiac deaths (C.B. Esselstyn et al, Journal of Family Practice, 63: 356-364, 2014 ).

Before moving on to other forms of vegetarianism, let me make the point that these are the only diets that have been shown to actually reverse atherosclerosis. That is a big deal.

 

The Seventh-Day Adventist Studies

Perhaps the largest group of studies on the health effects of vegetarians has been conducted on the Seventh-day Adventist population located in Southern California. Seventh-day Adventists believe that “God calls us to care for our bodies, treating them with the respect a divine creation deserves.” The Adventist church advocates a vegan diet consisting of legumes, whole grains, nuts, fruits, and vegetables. However, it allows personal choice, so a significant number of Adventists choose lacto-ovo vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, or semi-vegetarian diets.

That diversity has not only allowed studies of the Adventist population to not only compare a vegetarian diet to the standard American diet of the non-Adventist population living in the same area, but also to compare the various forms of vegetarian diets. There are dozens of published studies and several reviews on this topic. I will cite only the most recent review here (L.T. Le  and J. Sabate, Nutrients, 6: 2131-2147, 2014 ), but I will provide a complete list in my upcoming book.

This and other reviews have concluded that vegetarians weigh less, have less inflammation, have lower cholesterol levels and have lower risk of diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension than non-vegetarians. When we compare the various forms of vegetarianism, vegan diets appear to offer somewhat greater protection against obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and cardiovascular mortality than lacto-ovo and semi-vegetarian diets. The health benefits of vegetarian diets also seem to be somewhat greater for men than for women. One might speculate that might be because the average American male has a worse diet than the average American female. So, when men adopt a vegetarian diet, it may represent a greater improvement.

The reviews also looked at the nutritional adequacy of vegetarian diets. Vegetarian diets in general are very rich in antioxidants, most B vitamins, and polyphenols. Nutrients of concern for vegan diets are vitamin B12, vitamin D, calcium, iron, zinc, and long chain omega-3 fatty acids. Of those, vitamin B12 and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids are the ones most likely to require supplementation. Adequate levels of the other nutrients can be achieved by a well-designed vegan diet.

I would add protein to the list. Don’t misunderstand me. It is possible to get adequate protein on a vegetarian diet that includes beans and other legumes as a protein source. However, vegan advocates have been telling people they get all the protein they need from broccoli and other vegetables. That is incredibly bad advice, especially for seniors who are likely to suffer from sarcopenia (age related loss of muscle mass). Broccoli only provides 3 grams of protein per serving. You would need 15 servings to meet the protein RDA for women and almost 19 servings for men. Unfortunately, I often run across seniors who think they are getting all the protein they need from green salads and steamed vegetables. The bad advice from vegan advocates may be condemning them to unnecessary frailty in their old age.

What about the health claims of the low carbohydrate diets? Most of those “health benefits” are inferred from changes in blood parameters that occur over the first few weeks or months someone adopts those diets. There are no long-term data showing that low carbohydrate diets reduce the prevalence of diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Moreover, the few studies that compare low carbohydrate and vegetarian diets suggest the vegetarian diet is superior. For example, a recent study (M. Miller et al, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109: 713-717, 2009 ) compared the Atkins diet (the granddaddy of the low carb diets) with the Ornish diet. People on the low-fat Ornish diet had significantly lower LDL-cholesterol, apoB, and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) and had better arterial function than people on the high fat Atkins diet.

Do Vegetarians Live Longer?

What about the original question. Do vegetarians live longer? The answer isn’t clear. The Adventist Health Studies have reported that Adventist men live 6-7 years longer and Adventist women live ~4 years longer than their non-Adventist neighbors. However, the Adventist population may have other characteristics that contribute to their longevity. I will cover that in the section on “Blue Zones” in my upcoming book. In contrast, a very recent Australian study(S. Mihrshahi et al, Preventive Medicine, 97: 1-7, 2017 ) concluded that all-cause mortality was virtually identical for vegetarians and non-vegetarians. However, the authors of this study speculated that vegetarians in Australia have become less healthy in recent years because they are now consuming more high-sugar, processed “vegetarian” foods. Remember what I said about “Big Food Inc.” not being your friend.

What Does This Mean For You?

do vegetarians live longer or notThere are a few simple take-home messages from the research on the various forms of a vegetarian diet:

  • The Ornish diet and the very low fat vegan diet are the only diets shown to reverse atherosclerosis. If you have serious heart disease and would like to minimize your reliance on drugs and surgery, you should consider them. You will, of course, want to let your doctor know what you are doing.
  • Vegetarians are leaner and significantly healthier than non-vegetarians.
  • Vegans are slightly healthier than lacto-ovo and semi-vegetarians, but even vegetarians who include some dairy, eggs & meat in a primarily plant-based diet are much healthier than most Americans.
  • Vegetarians may not live longer, but they do live healthier longer.

There are also several subtle, but equally important, implications from these studies:

  • You can forget the claims you must be a vegan purist to obtain any health benefits from vegetarianism.If you watch movies like “Eating You Alive” or “What the Health”, you are led to believe you will suffer terrible health consequences if you add any dairy, eggs, or meat to a vegan diet. In fact, the evidence for reversing atherosclerosis is stronger for the Ornish diet, which is a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, than it is for a pure vegan diet. For several other health outcomes, the vegan diet is slightly more effective, but both lacto-ovo-vegetarian and semi-vegetarian diets are much healthier than the standard American diet.
  • Vegetarian diets are whole food diets.If you start adding in processed and convenience foods, even if they are labeled “vegan,” you are likely to lose all the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.
  • You can forget claims that you get all the protein you need from vegetables like broccoli. That is incredibly bad advice which is likely to condemn seniors to unnecessary frailty in old age.
  • You can forget the claims that you must avoid carbs at all costs. The proponents of the low carb diets will tell you that recommendations to limit fat are based on a lie. They tell you that fat is good for you and carbs will cause you to gain weight, increase inflammation, and increase your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. You are told to avoid grains and any other foods containing carbohydrate, including some fruits and vegetables. The “danger” of carbohydrates is only true for the refined grains, sugary sodas and junk foods in the standard American diet. Vegetarian diets emphasize whole grains, fruits and vegetables. They are high in carbohydrate and low in fat, and they reduce weight, inflammation, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.
  • You can forget most claims of weight loss. Most low carb diets tout rapid initial weight loss. Unfortunately, most of that weight comes back a year or two later. Only vegetarian diets are associated with lower weight over a period of many years.

In summary, a pure vegan diet is probably the healthiest form of vegetarianism, but it is difficult to follow. Vegetarian diets that are primarily plant based, but contain small amounts of dairy, eggs, or meat are also very healthy, and may be easier for the average American to follow.

 

The Bottom Line

 

Vegetarianism encompasses a wide range of diets. The standard vegan diet is entirely plant-based. There is a very low fat version of the vegan diet that also eliminates all oils. Lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets include some dairy and eggs. Semi-vegetarian diets include some meat. The Ornish diet is a very low fat version of the lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet.

There are a few simple take-home messages from the research on the various forms of a vegetarian diet:

  • The Ornish diet and the very low fat vegan diet are the only diets shown to reverse atherosclerosis.
  • Vegetarians are leaner and significantly healthier than non-vegetarians.
  • Vegans are slightly healthier than lacto-ovo– and semi-vegetarians, but even vegetarians who include some dairy, eggs & meat in a primarily plant-based diet are much healthier than most Americans.
  • In a head to head comparison, the Ornish diet was significantly healthier than the Atkins diet.
  • Vegetarians may not live longer, but they do live healthier longer.

There are also several subtle, but equally important, implications from these studies:

  • You can forget the claims you must be a vegan purist to obtain any health benefits from vegetarianism. Primarily plant-based diets with small amounts of dairy, eggs or meat are also very healthy.
  • Vegetarian diets are whole food diets. If you start adding in processed and convenience foods, even if they are labeled “vegan,” you are likely to lose all the health benefits of a vegetarian diet.
  • You can forget claims that you get all the protein you need from vegetables like broccoli. That is incredibly bad advice which is likely to condemn seniors to unnecessary frailty in old age.
  • You can forget the claims that you must avoid carbs at all costs. That is only true for the refined grains, sugary sodas and junk foods in the standard American diet. Vegetarian diets are high in carbohydrate, low in fat, and  very healthy.
  • You can forget most claims of weight loss. Only vegetarian diets are associated with lower weight over a period of many years.

In summary, a pure vegan diet is probably the healthiest form of vegetarianism, but it is difficult to follow. Vegetarian diets that are primarily plant based, but contain small amounts of dairy, eggs, or meat are also very healthy, and may be easier for the average American to follow.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • eroca

    |

    What a refreshing common sense overview. I do not hesitate to share this REAL NEWS. Thanks, Dr Chaney, I appreciate your wisdom.

    Can you imagine living a world not poisoned and also having the great innovations to manage bringing up our vibration?

    Keep on keeping on, thank you.

    Reply

  • Caroline

    |

    Having studied Oriental Medicine with several, I found them sick more, and their teeth, lacking calcium,turning grey to black. Some were thin but others were FAT. What bothered me was treating their babies and small children on either a vegan or vegetarian diet. The plant protein does not have the same health effect on the body. Even Dr. Scala, a vegan, ate a hamburger patty monthly simply because red meat does many health needs in the body, especially getting calcium to the bones. In all my years as a health consultant, I would never ever recommend a vegan/vegetarian diet as too risky with good vibrant health. They do tend to eat more sweets and way too much fruit which is hard on the liver, AND they never want to hear about good nutrition and I think this means they will never (and many have not) make great Chinese medicine whether at Master’s level and definitely NOT at the doctoral level and we are obliged to talk nutrition in CA as acupuncturists but many avoid talking nutrition. Sure glad I studied nutrition because at 80 and my spouse at 85 we are in great condition due to Shaklee nutrients and eating what our bodies need and want. AND we have good teeth, complexion, energy and don’t look our ages (vanity is good!) and I started Youth just less than 3 weeks ago due to product delays but am noticing some good happenings already.

    Reply

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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