Skip the steaks and burgers and you might just live longer. A recent study of more than 73,000 adults found that, overall, vegetarians were 12 percent less likely to die of any cause than meat eaters. The mortality rates were even lower for meat-shunning men. And when looking at specific causes of death, the researchers found that vegetarian guys were significantly less apt to die from heart disease than meat eaters, while meat-versus-no-meat didn’t seem to matter for women.
We’ve been hearing for a while now that vegetarian diets are über-healthy and that red meat can up your chances of heart disease and certain cancers. But this study is especially telling because, besides its huge sample size, these weren’t just any 73,000 people off the street. Every participant belonged to the Seventh-Day Adventist faith, which, according to the researchers, means they were way less likely to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes than the general population and more likely to exercise and maintain a healthy weight. That right there scratches out several other serious risk factors for heart disease and potential causes of death that otherwise could have influenced the results. “This population’s lifestyle characteristics reduced the likelihood that other factors accounted for the lower death rates among vegetarians,” says lead study author Dr. Michael Orlich, a professor of preventative medicine at Loma Linda University in California. So, diet really did make the difference.
As for why more vegetarian men than women were spared from heart-disease-related deaths, Orlich isn’t entirely sure, but he has a solid guess. “It may be that men in general have higher risks of premature death from certain causes like cardiovascular disease than women do, which a vegetarian diet helps to reduce,” he says. “This is a very important question that we want to investigate further.”
So what makes vegetarianism so healthful? “A diet built on plant proteins, fruits, and vegetables tends to be lower in health offenders like saturated fat and cholesterol but higher in health promoters like fiber, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins B, C, and E, as well as phytochemicals such as carotenoids and flavonoids,” says Jennifer McDaniel, MS, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. But that doesn’t mean every meat-free food is a winner. “You still have to consider the quality of everything you eat,” McDaniel says. “After all, cookies, soda, and potato chips are technically vegetarian.”