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Do Vegetarians Live Longer? The Effects of Diet on Longevity

Updated on June 17, 2013
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Now that the days of trying to look older with too much black eyeliner, a fake ID, and five inch heels are behind me, I have a new concern - slowing down the aging process and looking younger! Oh, longevity, how can we achieve it? Does diet have any effect on longevity? And what about a vegetarian diet, does it slow down the aging process? I consider myself semi-vegetarian (also known as the "vegivore" diet), what effect does that have on my longevity? These are all questions swirling around in my head that I've set out to answer in this article. If you too are wondering how you can age gracefully and the impact that your diet has on your longevity, then keep reading!

Okinawa Diet Foods

Residents of Okinawa, Japan have been documented to live longer than anywhere in the world. Here is a list of foods that attribute to their longevity:

  • meals rich in vegetables
  • whole grains
  • fish

Additionally, they partake in regular physical activity and live by the priciple of hara hachi bu , which essentially means eating until just about 80% full.

The Connection Between Longevity and Diet

According to research conducted by the University of Southern California, evidence points to lifestyle choices as being the key determining factor to longevity, attributing to 70-80% of a person's lifespan. Lifestyle choices refer to environmental factors that can be modified, as well as individual behaviors such as whether a person smokes, and yes, diet plays an important role in determining a person's lifespan. On the other hand, genetics are shown to attribute just 20-30% and are the determining factor after the age of 80.

In a book called "The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from people who lived the longest", the author, Dan Buettner identifies regions of the world known as blue zones, which refer to cities where people live past 100 years old on average. Those cities are: Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya, Costa Rica; and Ikaria, Greece. Interestingly, all the people in those cities share similar lifestyles and diet, namely:

  • eat a plant-based diet
  • eat legumes and nuts frequently
  • have healthy social and family lives
  • don't smoke
  • partake in regular physical activity

So what kind of diet is bad for you? Most studies show that eating a lot of red meat predisposes us to higher disease rates, particularly heart disease as well as other ailments such as appendicitis, chronic inflammation, and kidney disease.

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Do Vegetarians Live Longer?

Now that we understand the huge impact that lifestyle has on longevity and the importance of diet in that equation, you may have noticed the lack of meat-eating mentioned in the similar lifestyles that people share who live to a long age around the world. You're probably asking yourself, do vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters?

For the most part, scientific studies on the effects of a vegetarian diet on longevity produce mixed results. One study conducted by the German Cancer Research Center (Deutsche Krebsforschungszentrum) found that vegetarian men reduced their risk of early death by nearly half and vegetarian women, by almost one-third. Other studies into whether vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters are not as promising. A number of studies have shown that vegetarians do not live significantly longer than meat-eaters. On the other hand, two other studies of people who eat very little meat showed an average life-span increase of 3.6 years. Also, another noted study of Seventh Day Adventists who ate little or no meat showed longevity increases of 7.28 years in men and 4.42 years in women. Yet another study shows that people who consume fewer total calories daily, live longer and healthier lives and vegetarians tend to eat fewer calories than meat eaters so there's yet another connection between being vegetarian and longevity, just not exactly a direct one. Overall, In many cases, a vegetarian diet is followed by a healthy lifestyle which includes behaviors such as moderate drinking of alcohol and not smoking, which have found to be major determining factors of longevity.

The moral of the story, if you want to be vegetarian, go ahead and be vegetarian! Just make sure that you lead a healthy lifestyle and you'll be set to go. Being vegetarian won't hurt you (just make sure you're getting enough protein, iron, zinc, and vitamin B12 if you're vegan), but will it expand your lifespan? Who knows, it's obviously difficult to conduct a controlled study with vegetarians and non-vegetarians so we may never know. Bottom line, if you want to live longer, it's your overall lifestyle that will have the biggest impact.

Should you go vegetarian for health reasons? When Nobel-prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked this question, he replied, "Yes, for the health of the chicken! ".

Type of Vegetarian
Diet
Vegan
Avoids anything that comes from animals, including any meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, or eggs
Lacto-vegetarian
Eat dairy products in diet such as milk and cheese
Lacto-ovo-vegetarian
Eat dairy products, as well as eggs in diet
Pesco-vegetarian
Eat fish, dairy products, and eggs - only excluding meat
Semi-vegetarian
Eat meat once in a while but for the most part are pesco-vegetarian
Source

How To Eat a Vegetarian Diet

Vegetarians don't just munch on veggies all day long! Vegetarian diet needs vary depending on the type of vegetarian a person is. There's actually five categories of different types of what we call "vegetarians". Each type is explained in the table to the right.

To begin a vegetarian diet, you don't just take meat off your plate but you need to substitute the meat to make sure you get your daily nutritional needs. There are a bunch of meat substitutes that have a similar texture to meat, which include: tofu, seitan (my favorite), soy, and tempeh. A well-balanced vegetarian diet consisting of plant-based food includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Benefits of vegetarianism include:

  • Lowered cholesterol since plant based food have little or no cholesterol.
  • Vegetarians are much less likely to get diabetes.
  • Plant food is better for your heart.
  • Plant food is naturally low in saturated fats.
  • Plant food is much higher in fiber than animal-derived food.
  • Plant food have large amounts of important B-vitamins, folic acid, and provide a good source of phytochemicals - nutrients that help every organ of the body work better.
  • Lower incidents of cancer, especially colon, stomach, mouth, esophagus, lung, prostate, bladder, and breast cancers than meat-eaters.
  • Healthier planet since vegetables have a lower carbon footprint than meat.

If you're looking to age gracefully and possibly add a couple of years to your life, it's clear that a healthy diet and a healthy lifestyle will do the trick.

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