Vegetarians had a lower risk of death from any cause in a large new study, and men had the most substantial benefits for reduced cardiovascular morality.
The study found that people who followed any type of vegetarian diet — whether they were vegan or just ate meat once a week or less — were 12% less likely to die during the six year study compared to meat eaters. These benefits were greater in males who had a 29% reduction in death due to cardiovascular causes and ischemic heart disease.
Studies have already shown that vegetarian diets decrease the risk of several chronic diseases like hypertension, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, and heart disease. But whether vegetarians have decreased mortality risk was unclear, since previous research has produced conflicting results.
To clarify this potential link, researchers followed 73,308 American Seventh Day Adventists, whose religion encourages them to limit their intake of meat. Most of the participants were middle aged and researchers were interested in seeing whether dietary patterns impacted their risk of death.
People were categorized as vegan if they avoided dairy, eggs, fish, and meat (7.6%); lacto-ov-vegetarian if they did not eat meat and fish but consumed dairy and eggs (28.9%); pesco-vegetarian if they ate fish but no meat (9.8%); and semi-vegetarian if they only ate fish or meat once a week or less. The other 48.2% of participants were non-vegetarians.
After six years, 2,570 people had died. The risk for all-cause mortality was significantly reduced in men, while the women experienced reductions that were less significant. Vegans had particular benefits; they were 55% less likely to die of ischemic heart disease than non-vegetarians, 42% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease, and 38% likely to die of any cause.
There were no clear reductions in cancer deaths however. The researchers attributed this to the fact that all cancers were lumped together in their study, making it harder to detect potential associations between specific cancers and diet.
But simplying cutting out meat isn’t enough to decrease your risk. In an accompanying editorial, Dr. Richard Baron of the UC San Francsico, wrote that healthy diets should include plenty amounts of legumes, nuts, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. They should also limit refined sugars, refined grains, and large amounts of saturated and trans fats. Vegetarians in the study were also more likely to be physically fit and because of their religion, avoided alcohol and tobacco, which likely influenced their cardiovascular risks.
Walsh, N. Veggies are key to long life. Medpage Today. June 3, 2013. Accessed June 13, 2013.
Busko M. Vegetarian diet linked to longer life, less CVD mortality. Medscape Today. June 12, 2013. Accessed June 13, 2013.
Orlich MJ, Singh PN, Sabaté J, et al. Vegetarian dietary patterns and mortality in Adventist Health Study 2. JAMA Internal Medicine 2013: doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6473.
Baron RB. Should we all be vegetarians? JAMA Internal Medicine 2013: doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.6972.