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Published on August 3rd, 2014

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Do Vegetarians Live Longer? Don’t Count on It!

Comedian Myq Kaplan thinks his vegan diet will help him live long and well.   Although very little science supports that thought, Kaplan has identified a valid reason why it might just work.  As he quipped on Conan, “I read a statistic that says vegetarians live an average of seven years longer.   Vegans up to 15 years longer because we are not invited anywhere fun or dangerous.  We sit at home alone crying and drinking, being careful not to cry into the drink because tears are the product of animal suffering.

Few vegans have Kaplan’s naughty sense of humor, but many declare they’ll live seven, nine or even fifteen more years and share tales of spry centenarians thriving on plant-based diet   In reality, the Hunza and Vilcabambans consume some meat and raw dairy, and the Okinawans eat far more pork than soy.   What’s more, there’s no anthropological evidence of healthy, happy fruitarians sunning in gardens of eden prior to the hunter gatherer eras.   Indeed, leading anthropologists present convincing evidence that meat helped us evolve from big bellied, tiny-brained primates to big-brained humans able to leave all-day “grazing” behind and spend the time developing civilization.  In other words, eating animal products made us human.

The latest study to debunk the vegan longevity myth comes out of Graz, Austria.  Using data from the Austrian Health Interview Series, researchers from the Institute for Social Medicine and Epidemiology compared omnivores with vegans, ovo-lacto vegetarians and pesco-vegetarians (near vegetarians who consumed some fish, eggs and/or milk) of similar sex, age and socio-economic status.   They found the vegetarians suffered from more chronic conditions including allergies, asthma, anxiety, depression, diabetes, migraines, osteoporosis, heart disease and cancer.   They had more doctors visits, a higher need for health care, dimmer assessments of their own health, and poorer social relationships.    While the researchers did not report they were home crying because they “weren’t invited anywhere fun or dangerous,” they found vegetarian drinking was less likely to involve alcohol.

The Austrian Health Interview Survey was carried out over the course of a year from March 2006 to February 2007 and involved face-to-face interviews with 15,474 individuals aged 15 years and older.    Just 2.2% percent of the interviewees fell into the “vegetarian” category, which was broken down into vegans (0.2%), ovo-lacto vegetarians (0.8%) and semi vegetarians who ate fish and/or eggs and milk (1.2%).   The breakdown among the meat eaters was:  48.5 percent on a “normal” mixed diet; 23.6% eating moderate amounts of meat with plenty of fruit and veggies (in what many analysts have described as a “Mediterranean Diet”); and  25.7 percent called “big meat eaters” or carnivores.

Because the vegan, vegetarian and semi vegetarian diet groups included a total of only 343 people, the researchers chose to analyze them as one “vegetarian” group.   For study purposes, each of the vegetarians was matched with a meat eater of similar age, sex and social background.    The results came out in February, and given that most people believe vegetarians are healthier than the rest of us, the unexpected news made headlines.

As a long-time skeptic of vegetarian health promises, I admit I’m glad to finally be seeing a few headlines warning about the dangers of such diets.   But it’s nonetheless important to point out the obvious limitations to this study.   Some basic questions we need to ask are:

  • Did the diet cause or contribute to the health problems or did the health problems lead the subjects to adopt vegetarian diets?   Probably both, with health problems leading people to become “health conscious” and adopt vegan or vegetarian diets in the belief that they are healthier.   Such diets can result in improvements, especially among people who have moved away from omnivorous diets based on processed, packaged and fast foods, but over time the deficiencies of vegan and/or vegetarian diets  add up.
  • Were people with a history of stress and mental health issues more likely to adopt vegetarian diets or did the vegetarian diets contribute to their stress?   Once again it goes both ways, with especially strong links between veganism, anorexia and other eating disorders.
  • Were  the extra doctor visits the result of chronic conditions that preceded the diet?  Or did the special diets contribute to or even cause those conditions?    Again. not either/or but both.
  • What were the people actually eating?   Real food, whole food, organic?   Processed, packaged and fast foods?    There are junk food versions of both omnivorous and vegetarian diets after all.   And given that the survey was “self reported,” how truthfully did people respond?
  • How relevant are the results of  a dietary study conducted in Austria to people in the U.S. and other countries?   Having traveled extensively in Austria — including time in Graz as well as the usual Vienna and Salzburg—  I can report that the standard food choices there are significantly healthier than in the USA.    But that’s purely my subjective, anecdotal opinion!

THE TAKEAWAY?

As epidemiologist and lead researcher Nathalie Burkert readily conceded, we cannot conclude cause and effect from this study and more studies are urgently needed.    More interestingly, the University of Graz press release states, “It’s more about an ideological message that suggests false promises.”   Or as I would say far more bluntly to my vegetarian friends,   “Don’t be so certain your plant-based diet is going to work for you.”

 

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TO READ THE STUDY:

Burkert NT, Muckenhuber J, Großschädl F, Rásky É, Freidl W (2014) Nutrition and Health – The Association between Eating Behavior and Various Health Parameters: A Matched Sample Study. PLoS ONE 9(2): e88278. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0088278




22 Responses to Do Vegetarians Live Longer? Don’t Count on It!

  1. Darrin says:

    I think it is great to be skeptical about plant based diets. We should be skeptical about everything, always focusing on and quantifying the negative effects than come with any food ingestion. There are some difficult things about a plant based diet like getting enough protein when you exercise heavily or enough vitamin B. For me posting an article that is about interviews rather than science just adds confusion and reinforcement to poor food choices. Saturated animal fat reduces life span and contributes to nearly all the top killers in the US. Study after study have shown this starting back in the 1950s with Ancel Keys. The Mediterranean diet, with its focus on reduced saturated animal fats, has been studied over and overs show increased longevity. I think both debunking and humor are important but prefer a focus on debunking those things have a very strong negative effect on human health. Thank you for the article and the humor.

    • DrKaayla says:

      Thanks for commenting and appreciating my humor. Laughter is good medicine and most likely a longevity factor. Re the research of Ancel Keys and others pointing to the dangers of saturated fat, I’d recommmend you read the books of Gary Taubes for a thorough and sober discussion of their science and how it’s been discredited.

      • NAS says:

        Nina Teicholz’s book THe Big Fat Surprise is an excellent companion read to G. Taubes’ books.

      • Auggiedoggy says:

        Taubes is a charlatan. Have you seen him lately? He has a ponch. In fact, most of the low carb diet pushers are either overweight or at least a bit chubby. The best diet advice I’ve heard is from Michael Pollan – Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”. That seems to be working just fine for the people in the Blue Zones.

    • Wes says:

      Does that mean I should be skeptical of high animal product diets? Like Paleo? After all, you did say be skeptical about everything…

  2. cp says:

    There is so much great science as well as common sense that points to meat, fish, dairy, and oils doing damage without bringing any real benefit to the human diet compared with plant foods. The “complete protein” argument against veganism has long been disproven and seeds are far superior to animal foods if you’re arguing for meat regarding the benefits of fat in the diet. Among many others, The China Study is the most undeniable science based book about nutrition that touts a health promoting plant based diet and points out many of the harmful things about a diet containing meat and dairy. It’s just so plain to see.

  3. ProfWatson says:

    The Seventh Day Adventists have several studies that show that their men live 7 years longer than average. They claim that it is because they are vegetarian(dairy and eggs, not vegan). Some say it is not the food, but God favors them with the “blessing.” For a scientist, it is the food.

  4. cprince says:

    You’re wrong… Vegetarians live much longer–science shows they do….

  5. Mark says:

    The health excuses behind all of these restrictive diets are focused on longevity, but actually motivated by the fear of death, while there is no concern for quality of life. If I had to live life eating kale, weeds, tofu and rabbit food, I wouldn’t want to live very long anyway.

    • Wendy says:

      Plant based nutrient dense foods have more taste than processed foods and dead carcasses!! Miyoko’s kitchen is a vegan cheese ( non GMO and made from plants & nuts) that has won top awards at cheese tasting events going up against some of the finest cheeses in the world! Some of the best desserts I have ever tasted are vegan…And now there is a plant based (non GMO ) burger that has a higher protein content and could fool most meat eaters! Do some research!!

      • DrKaayla says:

        No accounting for taste! In terms of health, I think I’ll trust Mother Nature’s wisdom over Father Technology’s new “cheeses” and “burgers”

  6. Eric says:

    If a vegan or vegetarian met their macro and micro-nutrient needs (particularly B12 and iron) and confirmed this by an annual blood test, would your advice be to continue a plant-based diet? Do you think other studies might suggest that a healthy individual would stand to benefit from continuing a plant-based diet provided that they actually are getting all their nutrients?

    • DrKaayla says:

      If people are enjoying radiant good health, fantastic. They are clearly doing something right. Dr. Gonzalez found some people — in his experience, very, very few — did succeed on vegan diets.

    • Wes says:

      It is amazing that nobody talks about nuterient defiencies in people who consume a ton of animal flesh’s diet. Very few people succedd on a vegan diet? Please….don’t make me laugh. You don’t even have to be vegan. People have lived a long time on the only eat junk food diet….

  7. Sygun says:

    Thank you Dr Kayla for pointing out Ancel Keys faulty science that began our downhill nutrition demise …. it’s hell to get mainstream consumers to look at new and more reliable data … change is coming thank goodness just in time

  8. John says:

    Animal fat is healthy for you. Fat is a necessary nutrient for good health. Not all fat is bad for you. I too believe that quality of like is important. Eating a bland plant base diet is horrible. I sometimes wonder if vegans eat for health reason or because they don’t want to eat any animals. In other words, they would be vegan whether it benefited their health or not. To any Adventist, Jesus ate fish. He was not a vegan or vegetarian.

  9. Brittany says:

    I am going back to basics.

  10. Rvrmtn says:

    I am just a lowly computer programmer, but a lot of stats classes completed. Poring over every 7DA, Oxford study done this weekend, it did seem that there was small and significant decrease in deaths from all of the vegetarian groups (a lot included semi-veg or included fish though). I was also reading intelligence and genes accounts for most variance in longevity. 95 percent..So, my question is how could one possibly tease those factors out? Would vegetarians live longer anyway? Are they smarter? Better genes? Naturally thinner? Thanks..

  11. John says:

    this article is a complete joke, perhaps sponsored by some meat industry. All evidence shows clearly that vegans live much longer than meat eaters. People do things to excess and eating animal protein to excess is our biggest problem. Eating occasional meat is fine, but our bodies need the vast majority of our diet to be non animal protein.

    • DrKaayla says:

      The “meat industry” does not support grass-fed, pastured, free-range and sustainable products. I’ve written about the myths of vegan longevity and health elsewhere. Lierre Keith’s excellent book “The Vegetarian Myth” has helped many people to understand these issues more fully.

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