A new study suggests adopting a vegetarian diet won’t add extra years to your life
People go vegetarian for lots of reasons, says the University of Alberta’s Timothy Caulfield: Animal welfare. Personal branding. The “health halo.”
It just won’t prolong their life, suggests a large new study.
Researchers who tracked nearly a quarter million adults aged 45 and older in New South Wales found no significant differences in all-cause mortality, meaning the likelihood of dying, of any death, between those who followed a complete, semi- (meat once a week or less) or pesco- (fish permitted) vegetarian diet, and regular meat eaters.
Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy and expert in celebrity health trends, said the study (in which he played no role) fits with an emerging body of evidence that vegetarian diets don’t reduce the risk of premature death.
Vegetarianism has become almost a cultural norm in the Western World, he said. “Eating vegetarian is like the new Prius (Toyota’s hybrid). You’re telling the world the kind of individual you are, the personal brand.”
Caulfield stressed he doesn’t mean that in any kind of pejorative sense. “We all do those things.” And he sympathizes with the animal and environmental justifications. However, “the key message here is that there is no magic to the diet,” which may explain why omnivores sometimes view vegetarians and vegans as a tad morally righteous.
A 2015 paper, titled “It ain’t easy eating greens,” Calgary University and Brock University researchers found meat eaters evaluated vegetarians and vegans (plant-based products only) “equivalently or more negatively than several common prejudice target groups,” and more negatively than several nutritional “outgroups” (gluten intolerants, for example). “Strikingly, only drug addicts were evaluated more negatively than vegetarians and vegans,” the authors note.
According to co-author Gordon Hodson, a professor in Brock’s department of psychology, their research not only shows prejudice against those who abstain from consuming animal flesh, “we show that vegetarians FEEL negative social pressure from meat eaters,” he said in an email. He also doesn’t believe vegetarianism is a cultural norm in the West. “The numbers are still small, and many restaurants do not cater at all to those wanting plant-based foods.”
The Australian study is based on data from the “45 and Up Study,” described as the largest study of healthy aging in the Southern Hemisphere. The analysis is based on 243,096 men and women (mean age 62). After an average of six years of follow-up, the researchers counted up the number of deaths.
Out of 16,836 deaths in total (6.9 per cent of total), there were 80 deaths in vegetarians (5.3 per cent) and 16,756 deaths (6.9 per cent) in others (which includes pesco-vegetarians and semi-vegetarians.)
After controlling for numerous other factors, such a smoking, obesity and underlying diseases such as cancer, hypertension and heart disease, the researchers found no evidence that any of the variations of vegetarian diets had a protective effect on early death.
For the study’s purposes, complete vegetarian was defined as people who never eat red meat, any meat, fish, poultry, seafood, pork or ham. Vegans were included as vegetarians; the researchers didn’t tease out vegans, or lacto-ovo vegetarians, separately. They also didn’t look at differences in the food content of the vegetarian diets, beyond the absence of meat, or how long people had been vegetarian.
Still, according to the authors, earlier studies linking vegetarian diets with lower death rates have been criticized for not being representative of the general population, including several involving Seventh-day Adventists.
They say a possible explanation for their findings of a “null” association is that the traditional vegetarian diet has undergone “a transition in recent years,” with plant foods and whole grains being replaced by soybean substitutes, refined carbohydrates high in sugar, and “highly processed snack and fast foods which bring dietary risk factors more in line with the ‘normal’ diet.”
“It’s important to note that the news is not that bad for vegetarians — they basically have much healthier lifestyle behaviours than non-vegetarians,” said co-author Seema Mihrshahi, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney. Vegetarians were less likely to smoke, drink excessively, or be overweight or obese. They were also less likely to report having heart disease or cancer at the start of the study.
The work appears in the journal Preventive Medicine.
Caulfield, of the U of Alberta, said a longer follow up is needed. However, he said other studies have come to similar conclusions.
Vegetarians undeniably tend to be more health-conscious, he said. “They’re probably thinking about what they’re eating more than the rest of us. And, probably most important, they’re eating more fruits and vegetables.” Diets high in fruits and vegetables have been linked to lower risks of heart disease and other illnesses.
“If being a vegetarian encourages you to eat better and it fits with your philosophy in life, that’s fantastic,” Caulfield said.
But he understands the bias. “It’s like that vegan joke — How can you tell someone’s a vegan? They’ll tell you.”
“It goes to sort of that cultural meaning of being a vegetarian that’s associated with a particular world view that some might find as being overly righteous, and being judgmental of your eating, particularly if they’re doing it for ideological reasons.”
He thinks that’s starting to erode, as vegetarianism becomes more “normalized.” According to a 2015 Vancouver Humane Society poll eight percent of Canadians identify as vegetarian or mostly vegetarian, and another 25 percent say they’re trying to eat less meat.
“The main thing is to find a healthy diet that you can maintain, forever,” Caulfield says. “That’s what’s going to have the biggest impact.”