DO VEGETARIANS LIVE LONGER?
vegetarian, Marie-Louise Meilleur, was named as the world’s
oldest person at 122, the usual hunt for the secret of her longevity
ensued. Was it hard work, religion, having a lot of friends,
a good man, a life of abstinence, being a non-smoker?
the French-Canadian woman who took up fencing at 85, smoked
until she was 95, still rode a bicycle at 100 and made a rap
CD at 121, the reason for living so long was put down to a vegetarian
diet, supplemented by modest amounts of olive oil, port wine
who died six years ago, was the latest in a long line of holders
of the title as the world’s oldest person whose diets
have been exclusively or largely vegetarian. Every now and then
remarkably old people such as her emerge, although usually they
are found among geographically isolated agrarian peoples whose
diets are primarily vegetarian, such as the Hunzakuts of northern
Pakistan and the mountain-dwellers of Turkey.
notion that vegetarian diets lead to a healthier and longer
life has been further supported from research based on World
War II experiences of people in Scandinavia, where dietary restrictions
virtually wiped meat off the menu. The loss of meat led to a
drop in the mortality rate, and when diets returned to normal
after the war, so too did the death rate.
these observations, there has never been any definitive proof
of just how much extra time on Earth a vegetarian can expect
to get. That is, until now. New research shows that being a
vegetarian for 20 years or more adds almost four years to the
Pramil Singh, who led the research at Loma Linda University
in California, says: “We are the first to come up with
a life-expectancy figure showing a very important increase in
life expectancy for those who follow a vegetarian diet for a
long period of time.”
and other epidemiologists analyzed long-term data from a group
of Adventists who have been monitored for more than 40 years.
They also reviewed data from six other studies, including two
in Britain and one in Germany. One of the British studies showed
a 20 per cent drop in mortality among vegetarians, while the
German study suggested an even greater reduction.
the British and German data supported the principle of reduced
mortality in non-meat-eaters, it was the 7,100 people in the
Adventist study who were the key to obtaining long-term accurate
information from men and women who had been vegetarians for
a considerable length of time.
says: “What we have in the Adventists is a group of people
who follow the recommendations of their church and who wind
up being vegetarian for a long time. That is, enough people
with which to make mortality comparisons.”
researchers were also able to distinguish between those who
had been vegetarian for more than 20 years, those who had lapsed,
and those who were eating little or no meat for a shorter period
found considerable differences in the lifespans of the different
groups. “Survival data indicate that long-term vegetarians
do experience a significant 3.6-year survival advantage over
short-term vegetarians,” the report said. The average
life expectancy of people who had been vegetarian for 20 years
or more was 86.5 years, compared with 82.9 for the short-term
next big question facing researchers is why vegetarians live
so much longer. Is it because they are exposed to fewer of any
negative health effects that may be associated with meat eating?
Is it because they benefit from the positive health effects
of eating more vegetables? Or is it simply that people who choose
to be vegetarians have lifestyles that differ in other ways
that favour a longer lifespan?
simply don’t know,” says Dr Susan Jebb, the head
of nutrition research at the Medical Research Council’s
human nutrition research unit in Cambridge, in Britain. “Vegetarians
may be exposed to more of the beneficial effects of fruit and
vegetables simply because they eat more, or the lifestyle package
that often goes with being a vegetarian could play a role, too.
It may well be a little bit of each.”
says more work is needed to discover what could be important,
but he points out that positive effects for plant foods have
been found. “Among Adventists, one of the things we found
was that consumption of legumes, nuts and salads seemed, in
separate analyses, to show independent decreases in risk. We
have additional work which suggests that use of legumes reduces
risk of death. Green salad or green vegetable also seem to decrease
research suggests that the range of antioxidants that are found
in the pigments of fruit and vegetables are among the most effective
health-enhancing compounds in vegetables. Antioxidants help
to prevent the cellular damage caused by free radicals in the
at Glasgow University found that some fruits and vegetables
have more of one type of antioxidants – flavonols -- than
other crops. They have also found differences between similar
fruit and vegetables. Tiny cherry tomatoes, for example, have
many more of the chemicals than bigger tomatoes. Red onions
are full of flavonols, while the white version has almost none.
is important, too. Researchers from a number of countries say
that the more vibrant the colour of the vegetable, the higher
its antioxidant level.
Luke Howard of Arkansas University says: “There are literally
thousands of compounds in vegetables that may be health-protective,
and we need to eat a wide variety. We also need to look at breeding
fruits and vegetables that contain higher levels of health-protective
is the way with these things, of course, not all the evidence
supports enhanced lifespan. One British study into longevity
and diet based on 4600 people found no difference.
difficulty is that not all those people who show great longevity
are vegetarians. When Meilleur died, her title passed to a 117-year-old
American woman who hated vegetables. Relatives said that she
had eaten chocolate, crisps, pretzels and sweets while avoiding
anything remotely resembling a vegetable.
then there’s the strange case of Yukichi Chuganji, who
inherited the mantle of the world’s oldest person in January
last year, at the age of 112. He bucked the apparent trend in
a big way. It isn’t just that the retired silkworm breeder
from the island of Kyushu, in Japan, hated vegetables. The real
blow is that one of his passions was eating meat.
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