There’s plenty of evidence showing that vegetarian diets are great for your heart and waistline and even protect against cancer. But a new study of more than 73,000 Americans showed that it can help you live longer too. People with a plant-based diet in the study had a 20 percent lower mortality rate than meat eaters.
This study is one of the first to look at data from a living population of such a big size and to analyze the participants’ eating patterns so meticulously. The researchers also controlled for lifestyle factors that could undermine health and lifespan, such as obesity, smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, poor sleep patterns, and age. Even despite all of these, the vegetarians and semi-vegetarians (one serving of meat per week max) lived longer, healthier lives than those who ate meat even a few times a week.
“Based on this study and other recent research, on average, vegetarians and semi-vegetarians tend to add about 10 years to their lives,” says Sam Soret, coauthor of the study and associate dean of Loma Linda University School of Public Health. “This doesn’t mean that every individual can automatically extend his life by going vegetarian because, besides diet, the genetic lottery plays a role in longevity. But having these results from such a huge group of people makes it undeniable that diet is a critical component impacting [lifespan].”
What makes a plant-based diet such a life saver? “It seems that there are fundamentally two factors at play,” Soret says. “One is that the more plant foods you eat, the less meat you tend to consume. Meat has detrimental effects in its own right, which we know from evidence accumulated over the last century linking it to heart disease and cancer. So the more meat you eat, the more you expose yourself to these negative factors.”
Secondly, plant foods provide their own health perks. “We also have important evidence that proves plants contain protective elements such as phytonutrients,” Soret says. “Even semi-vegetarians, who eat some meat but still consume a lot of plant foods, minimize their exposure to the bad stuff in meat while upping their exposure to protective stuff in plants. It’s a double whammy.”