Thursday, May 12, 2016

Feature Article: Do vegetarians live longer than meat eaters?

Vegetarians tend to avoid meat for one of 2 reasons, they think it is unhealthy to eat meat or they have an ethical issue with doing so. If they are motivated by ethical factors, that question is beyond the scope of this newsletter. If they are motivated by improved health, we can ask the question; Are vegetarians healthier than meat eaters? Do they live longer?

I recently came across a study that attempts to answer this question.

Mortality in vegetarians and comparable nonvegetarians in the United Kingdom. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2016;103:218-230.

This study was a pooled analysis of 2 prospective cohort studies in the UK that totaled 60,310 subjects: 

18,431 were regular meat eaters who ate meat 5 or more times per week.

13,039 were less frequent meat eaters.

8,516 were fish eaters who ate fish but not meat.

20,324 were vegetarians including 2,228 vegans who did not eat any animal foods.

Diet was assessed by means of a food frequency questionnaire. After over a million person years of follow-up time, there were 5,294 deaths before the age of 90. By the end of follow-up, there was no significant difference in total mortality among the 5 groups.

In other words, vegetarians and vegans did not live any longer than those that ate meat or fish.

I was not really surprised by the findings of this study. The idea that meat eaters are unhealthy while vegetarians are healthy is far too simplistic. There is a whole lot more to the story.

#1) Protein itself is not really the issue. It is what comes along with the protein package that will determine a food’s impact on health.

Healthy sources of protein will be low in saturated fat, unprocessed, low in sodium, and not red in color.

Examples of healthy protein sources would be lean meats like chicken and turkey, low fat dairy products, legumes, nuts, fish and seafood. You can see that some of these are animal sources and some are not.

Proteins you want to go a bit easier on include red meat, processed meats (like bacon, sausage, pepperoni, and hot dogs) and full fat dairy products like cheese. Again, some of these are animal sources and some are not.

2) When evaluating the health impact of a diet, you have to look at more than just the source of protein. For example, what is the quality of carbohydrate consumed? What type of fat is being consumed? If you are eating a ton of saturated fat, sugar and high glycemic load carbs, you are not going to be healthy no matter what protein sources you are focusing on.

For example a meat eater and a vegetarian can go out to a restaurant for lunch and order the following:

1) Meat eater: A garden salad with grilled chicken and olive oil and vinegar dressing, a glass of club soda with lime and a bowl of strawberries for dessert.

2) Vegetarian: Pasta Alfredo with two big pieces of bread, 2 sugary sodas and an ice cream sundae for desert.

Who did a better job, the vegetarian or the meat eater?

So, the take home messages from this study are the following:
1) Lean sources of animal protein like chicken, turkey, fish, and seafood are not bad for your health. There is no reason to avoid them.

2) The protein sources to strictly limit include processed meats like bacon, salami and hot dogs, red meat, dairy products like cheese, yogurt and milk that are full fat.

3) There are other important factors besides the source of protein in your diet that will impact your risk of chronic disease. Make sure you are paying good attention to your sources of fat and carbohydrate. Other important areas that need attention are your weight, exercise habits, sleep and stress levels.

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