It is common knowledge that eating healthy is conducive to our wellbeing, including our natural aging process. But can adherence to a vegetarian diet actually add to our life span? One study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found evidence that vegetarians have a slightly better chance at living longer than omnivores.
There are clearly beneficial effects of vegetarian diets in the prevention of chronic diseases and the improvement of longevity, according to Dr. Michael Orlich of the Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, the lead author of the study report.
For the study, the researchers interviewed over 70,000 participants about their eating habits. Those who identified themselves as vegetarians were divided into different categories of vegetarianism, including vegans (eating nothing but plant foods), lacto-ovo vegetarians (eating plant-foods as well as dairy products and eggs), and semi-vegetarians (eating mostly plant-foods but also some animal products like fish and poultry).
Using national databases, the researchers then determined differences in mortality rates during a follow-up time of six years. They found that over one year five to six per 1,000 vegetarians had died compared to seven per 1,000 meat eaters.
Since all causes of death were included in the analysis, it is not altogether clear what made the differences in the mortality rates, but critics have pointed out that the vegetarian groups had other health-promoting advantages as well such as overall healthier lifestyles, abstinence from smoking, lower average body weight and higher education levels than their omnivorous counterparts. But the vegetarians also tended to be older.
Still, the study's findings confirm that people who eat mostly plant-based foods are less likely to develop chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes and certain forms of cancer.
So, should we all consider becoming vegetarians for the sake of a longer life? Not necessarily. Longevity is not dependent on just one aspect of our existence but rather on all the things we do for the benefit of our wellbeing. You may eat all the health food you want, but if you have a hard time handling your stress at work or at home, it will still affect your heart. If you put off exercise for too long, you can gain weight on a vegetarian diet as well.
The trick is to understand that all our actions are interconnected. If we get run down in one area, it has consequences for all the others. I know that if I don't eat right, I feel sluggish and without energy. The same happens if I don't get enough physical activity or I'm sleep deprived. If my mind is not stimulated and I'm bored, I lose focus. If I allow myself to get stressed out, it impacts my work as well as my relationship with family and colleagues.
So, of course, it's a good idea to eat foods that offer the greatest benefits and the least detriments in terms of good health and perhaps also a longer life. But the point is that it has to come in one whole package called healthy living. As I have emphasized many times before, longevity alone should not be the goal, but the highest possible quality of life to the very end.