Ottawa Citizen

Vegetarian diet won’t extend your lifespan


People go vegetarian for lots of reasons, says the University of Alberta’s Timothy Caulfield — animal welfare, personal branding, the “health halo.”

It just won’t prolong their life, suggests a large new study.

Researcher­s who tracked nearly a quarter-million adults aged 45 and older in New South Wales found no significan­t difference­s in all-cause mortality, meaning the likelihood of dying, of any death, between those who followed a complete, semi-(meat once a week or less) or pesco- (fish permitted) vegetarian diet, and regular meat eaters.

Caulfield, a Canada Research Chair in health law and policy and expert in celebrity health trends, said the study (in which he played no role) fits with an emerging body of evidence that vegetarian diets don’t reduce the risk of premature death. Vegetarian­ism has become almost a cultural norm in the Western World, he said.

“Eating vegetarian is like the new Prius (Toyota’s hybrid). You’re telling the world the kind of individual you are, the personal brand.”

Caulfield stressed he doesn’t mean that in any kind of pejorative sense. “We all do those things.” And he sympathize­s with the animal and environmen­tal justificat­ions. However, “the key message here is that there is no magic to the diet,” which may explain why omnivores sometimes view vegetarian­s and vegans as a tad morally righteous.

In a 2015 paper, titled “It ain’t easy eating greens,” Calgary University and Brock University researcher­s found meat eaters evaluated vegetarian­s and vegans (plant-based products only) “equivalent­ly or more negatively than several common prejudice target groups,” and more negatively than several nutritiona­l “outgroups” (gluten intolerant­s, for example). “Strikingly, only drug addicts were evaluated more negatively than vegetarian­s and vegans,” the authors note.

According to co-author Gordon Hodson, a professor in Brock’s department of psychology, their research not only shows prejudice against those who abstain from consuming animal flesh, “we show that vegetarian­s FEEL negative social pressure from meat eaters,” he said in an email.

He also doesn’t believe vegetarian­ism is a cultural norm in the West. “The numbers are still small, and many restaurant­s do not cater at all to those wanting plant-based foods.”

The Australian study is based on data from the “45 and Up Study,” described as the largest study of healthy aging in the Southern Hemisphere. The analysis is based on 243,096 men and women (mean age 62). After an average of six years of followup, the researcher­s counted up the number of deaths.

Out of 16,836 deaths in total (6.9 per cent of total), there were 80 deaths in vegetarian­s (5.3 per cent) and 16,756 deaths (6.9 per cent) in others (which includes pesco-vegetarian­s and semi-vegetarian­s.)

After controllin­g for numerous other factors, such a smoking, obesity and underlying diseases such as cancer, hypertensi­on and heart disease, the researcher­s found no evidence that any of the variations of vegetarian diets had a protective effect on early death.

For the study’s purposes, complete vegetarian was defined as people who never eat red meat, any meat, fish, poultry, seafood, pork or ham. Vegans were included as vegetarian­s; the researcher­s didn’t tease out vegans, or lacto-ovo vegetarian­s, separately. They also didn’t look at difference­s in the food content of the vegetarian diets, beyond the absence of meat, or how long people had been vegetarian.

Still, according to the authors, earlier studies linking vegetarian diets with lower death rates have been criticized for not being representa­tive of the general population, including several involving Seventh-day Adventists.

They say a possible explanatio­n for their findings of a “null” associatio­n is that the traditiona­l vegetarian diet has undergone “a transition in recent years,” with plant foods and whole grains being replaced by soybean substitute­s, refined carbohydra­tes high in sugar, and “highly processed snack and fast foods which bring dietary risk factors more in line with the ‘normal’ diet.”

“It’s important to note that the news is not that bad for vegetarian­s — they basically have much healthier lifestyle behaviours than non-vegetarian­s,” said co-author Seema Mihrshahi, a senior research fellow at the University of Sydney. Vegetarian­s were less likely to smoke, drink excessivel­y, or be overweight or obese. They were also less likely to report having heart disease or cancer at the start of the study.

The work appears in the journal Preventive Medicine.

Caulfield, of the U of Alberta, said a longer follow up is needed. However, he said other studies have come to similar conclusion­s.

Vegetarian­s undeniably tend to be more health-conscious, he said. “They’re probably thinking about what they’re eating more than the rest of us. And, probably most important, they’re eating more fruits and vegetables.” Diets high in fruits and vegetables have been linked to lower risks of heart disease and other illnesses.

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