Can eating a vegetarian diet really help you live longer?

Can you still hear mum nagging you to eat more veggies? Or worse yet, do you now sound like your mum when you’re coaxing your tribe to eat up their greens at dinnertime?

Well it turns out mum was right! Eating veggies can make a big difference, and we’re not just talking about growing up big and strong, or giving you muscles like Popeye. Science shows a mainly plant-based diet can actually add years to your life.

For several decades now, research has consistently found that a vegetarian diet, that is mainly made up of veggies, fruit, nuts, legumes and wholegrains, can reduce your risk of major diseases and help you live longer1–5.

A team of researchers at Loma Linda University in the United States has shown vegetarian men live for an average of 10 years longer than non-vegetarian men — 83 years compared to 73 years. For women, being vegetarian added an extra 6 years to their lives, helping them reach 85 years on average.

The Loma Linda team is behind the ground-breaking Adventist Health Study-1 regarding life expectancy. This study is considered the gold standard in the world of nutrition because it is a comprehensive, long-term study that involves a large number of people.

For 14 years, Loma Linda researchers tracked the diets, lifestyle and diseases among 34,000 Seventh-day Adventists. This Christian religion encourages a vegetarian diet and abstaining from alcohol and smoking. Adventists are ideal participants for large population studies, because most don’t smoke or drink. This makes it easier to see how their other lifestyle choices, particularly dietary choices, impact their health and longevity.

The study found that there were 5 key habits that could add years to your life. They were:

  1. Eating a plant-based diet,
  2. Eating a handful of nuts regularly (around five times a week),
  3. Being active,
  4. Not smoking, and
  5. Being a healthy weight.

The research found on average these lifestyle factors could each provide an extra 2–3 years to your life and what’s better is they add up — so if you follow them all you could enjoy an extra decade.

A more recent study from Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health corroborates this. Maintaining 5 healthy habits (eating a healthy diet, exercising, being a healthy weight, not smoking, and moderate or not drinking) may add a decade or more to life expectancy. The combination of all 5 was linked with the most additional years, but experts believe the most important one is healthy eating, particularly a whole food plant-based diet.

The power of plant-based diets is linked to the nutrients they provide beyond their important vitamins and minerals. They are a key source of dietary fibre, resistance starch, and potent plant compounds including antioxidants and phytochemicals. The benefits also come from what’s missing, with plant-based diets containing less saturated fat and less cholesterol.

And there’s more than science to vouch for going green. The evidence linking plant-based diets and longevity can actually be found among some of the world’s oldest cultures. Think bountiful veggies featured in traditional Mediterranean eating or the wholefoods focus of customary Okinawan Japanese.

Dan Buettner, a researcher with National Geographic, found and studied 5 communities where people generally lived an active lifestyle well into their nineties. He called these communities “Blue Zones” and found them in Costa Rica, Italy, Greece, Japan and in California (among the group of Adventists in the Loma Linda area). What people living in “Blue Zones” had in common was they avoided highly processed foods, grew their own plant foods, ate very little meat (or none at all) and stayed active well into old age.

Food was also at the heart of their communities with meals creating valued family time.

For all of us living outside “Blue Zones”, we can still learn from these communities and also give our longevity a lift by incorporating the 5 core healthy habits identified in the Adventist Health Study.

If you regularly eat meat and three veg for dinner, switching to a plant-based diet can seem a little daunting and potentially hard to stick to.

The good news is there’s no need to make drastic changes and immediately cut out all meat from your diet. It’s best to begin with easy swaps that you can maintain - this is a change in lifestyle, not a fad diet. Try going meat free for 1 day a week, for example, Meat Free Mondays.

The most important thing to remember, when reducing the amount of meat you eat, is to switch it for veggies, legumes, wholegrains, fruits, nuts and seeds and avoid filling the gap left on your plate with highly processed carbs.

To put you on the right path, give these easy swaps a go:

  • Double the veggies and half the meat when you serve up dinner,
  • Stir some sautéed mushrooms and canned lentils into your Bolognese and reduce the amount of mince you use,
  • Pop cashew nuts, cubed tofu or chickpeas in your salad instead of chicken,
  • Try grilling Portobello mushrooms or veggie skewers for your next BBQ,
  • Make the move from meat-free Mondays to meat-free weekdays, and
  • Try out some of the growing number of plant-based alternative meat options now available.
 

Tasty plant-based meal and snack ideas

References

  1. Kahn, H. A., R. L. Phillips, D. A. Snowdon and W. Choi (1984). "Association between reported diet and all-cause mortality. Twenty-one-year follow-up on 27,530 adult Seventh-day Adventists." AM J Epidemiol 119(5): 775–787.
  2. Snowdon, D. A., R. L. Phillips and G. E. Fraser (1984). Meat consumption and fatal ischemic heart disease." Prev Med 13(5):490–500.
  3. Appleby, P. N., M. Thorogood, J. I. Mann and T. J. Key (1999). "The Oxford Vegetarian Study: an overview." Am J Clin Nutr 70(3 Suppl): 525S–531S.
  4. Fraser, G. E. (1999). "Associations between diet and cancer, ischemic heart disease, and all-cause mortality in non-Hispanic white California Seveth-day Adventists." Am J Clin Nutr 70(3 Suppl): 532S–538S.
  5. Key, T. J., G. E. Fraser, M. Thorogood, P. N. Appleby, V. Beral, G. Reeves, M. L. Burr, J. Chang-Claude, R. Frentel-Beyme, J. W. Kuzma, J. Mann and K. McPherson (1999). "Mortality in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: detailed findings from a collaborative analysis of 5 prospective studies." Am J Clin Nutr 70(3 Suppl): 516S–524S.

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