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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




30 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.

        • DubbyDove says:

          I suspect we’re all different. I’ve been on so many diets, gaining weight in my middle years mostly following a low fat, mostly vegetarian diet and very, very frustrated that I couldn’t lose weight. I started a LCHF diet last November and now weigh what I haven’t weighed since my 30’s in addition to improved blood and cholesterol tests. Because something doesn’t work for you, show some respect for the experiences of others. This diet has be4en a lifesaver for many people and there is currently research to determine its possible role in preventing/helping to heal cancer. Don’t know that this or ANY diet is right for everyone on the planet, but Taubes is no fraud, but perhaps those who claim to know what’s best for everyone else are the real frauds.

    • 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!!

  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.

  12. Isabelle says:

    Interesting article, I don’t know what to believe though. My father was a straight up meat eater and smoker and died from colon cancer, I was in the room when the doctors told him to give up meat and cigarettes and it was hard for him to quit he would sneak out of the appartment and eat a burger or pizza and smoke and at the same time he was recieving medical treatment, the doctors knew he was lying because he wasn’t getting any better. The doctors told me maybe a plant based diet would have helped him if he cut off his addiction. He died at 73 and sometimes I think that maybe if he followed the doctors orders he would have lived another 10 or 20 years. I don’t think a plant based diet can do any harm as long as you stay away from processed foods and foods high in sugars and saturated fats. I find it hard to believe meats eaters live longer lives I know two friends of mine that are meat eats who eat very little veggies who are fighting chronic diseases right now and its making think twice about foods and which one I put into my body.

    • DrKaayla says:

      Lot of variables here. You are concerned about meat, but mention cigarettes, fast food burgers and pizza, and diets low in vegetables. I recommend omnivorous diets rich in vegetables, low in grains, preferably gluten-free. Quality is crucial as well so look for pastured, grass-fed, free-range, organic, fresh and local.

  13. Gary Ogden says:

    Kaayla: Dr. Gary Fettke (the Tasmanian orthopedic surgeon who has been banned for life by the “medical” authorities in Australia from telling his diabetic patients to stop eating sugar-I’m not making this up-he was frustrated at having to lop off so many limbs) has recently given a talk regarding food (he decided they’re not going to shut him up). He did a great deal of research into the Seventh Day Adventist church. Turns out they’ve been closely allied with the food industry (such as Kellogs) since the 19th century! Their research concerning vegetarian diet and longevity is conducted among them and by them, and we should be rightly skeptical of all of it. Australia is rapidly turning into a fascist state-revoking Polly Tommey’s visa and calling her an “enemy of the state.” Their right about that. Truth is the enemy of all states.
    I have no problem with vegetarians adopting vegetarianism because they wish to, but I have little doubt that, on a population level, were a retrospective study conducted with sufficient power (gobs of people), and taking account of all significant confounding factors, it would show omnivores live longer, healthier, happier lives. The Fettke article is by Marika at Foodmed.net (I think that’s the right spelling).

  14. Joe M says:

    Vegetarians having more cases of cancer? LOL. That’s certainly not true at all. Complete nonsense. Forget stupid studies. Studies mean nothing. History is your proof. Plants kill cancer. Anything man made feeds it. And eating meat potentially promotes it. Especially red meat. Too much meat creates a “growth factor” that encourages tumors and such. Meat is heavily acidic, which in such a pH environment, cancer and illnesses thrive. Plants create a heavily alkaline body and provide tons of nutrition you can’t possibly get anywhere else. Synthetic vitamins have zero value compared to plants. We were meant to eat a raw food diet. Plants never made a person fat. But they make people grow old slower and have more agility. Meat makes people crave and get fat. Makes them want to stuff their faces and pig out. Restaurants thrive on meat eaters. Its disgusting to watch. You people need to wake up. Jack Lalanne was a vegan for the majority of his life. If anyone was an authority on diet, it was him. He lived to be 96. People in the old days who have lived to be that old ate meat and sugar. You could get away with it back then. Because the meat and sugar were MUCH different. Today, meat and sugar are POISON to the body. If you eat them you are ASKING FOR CANCER.

  15. Adriana says:

    Weather your healthy or not mentality is first. Depression and loneliness will kill you before obesity does. People who live happy have a better amount system. There’s no doubt that eating all that junk of meat and animal product will always end up doing some damage meat take forever to process and all dairy is just batería but at least if you’re happy eating that you might leave longer. In this case ignorance might be bliss because you don’t worry about side effects you don’t give yourself extra stress and don’t starve because you can’t eat the spicific thing you want to eat

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