By Heather Moore
Health news can be so depressing. Virtually every day, we see discouraging reports about heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. But there is also a good reason to be optimistic. In a study published recently, researchers from Loma Linda University in California shared some encouraging news: Vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters.
The findings from the large-scale study—which was funded by the National Institutes of Health—should remind us that we aren’t powerless victims of chronic disease. We can all be healthier just by bypassing the meat counter and opting for plant-based meals.
The researchers tracked more than 73,000 Seventh-day Adventists for nearly six years. They used questionnaires to find out what type of diet the participants ate (many, but not all, Seventh-day Adventists are vegetarian) and then followed up to find out how many of the participants had died and how.
Here’s what they discovered: The vegetarian (and mostly vegetarian) participants—people included in this group ranged from those who didn’t eat any animal-based foods at all to those who ate meat only once a week—were 12 percent less likely to die prematurely than those who ate meat regularly. Those in the vegetarian group were 19 percent less likely to die from heart disease, in particular, and were also less likely to die from diabetes and kidney failure. In addition, they tended to be thinner and have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
Although the researchers were quick to note that the vegetarians were more likely to exercise and less likely to smoke or drink in excess, they attributed their findings largely to the participants’ food choices. The researchers weren’t completely sure why a plant-based diet has such a protective effect, but they speculated that it’s because plant foods tend to be higher in fiber and lower in saturated fat.
And unlike meat, which contains high amounts of cholesterol, sodium, nitrates and other unhealthy ingredients, plant-based foods are cholesterol-free and contain phytochemicals and antioxidants that help combat carcinogens and other harmful substances in the body.
Other studies, including a previous one involving about 30,000 Seventh-day Adventists, have also suggested that people who eat wholesome plant-based foods live longer than meat-eaters. Because of these studies, many hospitals and healthcare facilities around the U.S., including Boston Medical Center and St. John’s Well Child & Family Center in Los Angeles, have initiated programs to encourage people to eat more plant-based foods. Medical providers at the L.A. facility, for example, have begun writing “prescriptions” for patients to buy organic fruits and vegetables. By promoting vegan foods, healthcare practitioners hope to help patients maintain a healthy weight and prevent—and sometimes even reverse—deadly diseases.
We can’t predict when or how we’ll die, but we can try to increase our life expectancy and quality of life. Choosing vegan foods rather than meat, eggs and dairy products is a simple way to help ensure that you’ll be with your loved ones—and not in an emergency room—for as long as possible.