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Kathy Freston

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Why Do Vegetarians Live Longer?

Posted: 10/26/2012 9:00 pm

Nearly a decade of extra life -- that's what you get when you move away from eating animal foods and toward a plant-based diet. This is really exciting science for anyone seeking healthy longevity (and who isn't?)!

According to a recent report on the largest study of vegetarians and vegans to date, those eating plant-based diets appear to have a significantly longer life expectancy. Vegetarians live on average almost eight years longer than the general population, which is similar to the gap between smokers and nonsmokers. This is not surprising, given the reasons most of us are dying. In an online video, "Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death," Michael Greger, M.D. explores the role a healthy diet can play in preventing, treating, and even reversing the top 15 killers in the United States. Let's take a closer look at what the good doctor has pulled together...

Heart disease is our leading cause of death. The 35-year follow-up of the Harvard Nurses Health Study was recently published, now the most definitive long-term study on older women's health. Dietary cholesterol intake -- only found in animal foods -- was associated with living a significantly shorter life and fiber intake -- only found in plant foods -- was associated with living a significantly longer life. Consuming the amount of cholesterol found in just a single egg a day may cut a woman's life short as much as smoking five cigarettes daily for 15 years, whereas eating a daily cup of oatmeal's worth of fiber appears to extend a woman's life as much as four hours of jogging a week. (But there's no reason we can't do both!)

What if your cholesterol's normal, though? I hear that a lot. But here's the thing: having a "normal" cholesterol in a society where it's "normal" to drop dead of a heart attack is not necessarily a good thing. According to the editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, "For the build-up of plaque in our arteries to cease, it appears that the serum total cholesterol needs to be lowered to the 150 area. In other words the serum total cholesterol must be lowered to that of the average pure vegetarian."

More than 20 years ago, Dr. Dean Ornish showed that heart disease could not just be stopped but actually reversed with a vegan diet, arteries opened up without drugs or surgery. Since this lifestyle cure was discovered, hundreds of thousands have died unnecessary deaths. What more does one have to know about a diet that reverses our deadliest disease?

Cancer is killer number two. Ah, the dreaded "C" word -- but look at this hopeful science. According to the largest forward-looking study on diet and cancer so far performed, "the incidence of all cancers combined is lower among vegetarians." The link between meat and cancer is such that even a paper published in the journal Meat Science recently asked, "Should we become vegetarians, or can we make meat safer?" There are a bunch of additives under investigation to suppress the toxic effects the blood-based "heme" iron, for example, which could provide what they called an "acceptable" way to prevent cancer. Why not just reduce meat consumption? The meat science researchers noted that if such public health guidance were adhered to, "Cancer incidence may be reduced, but farmers and [the] meat industry would suffer important economical problems..." Hmmm, so Big Ag chooses profit over health; what a surprise.

After Dr. Ornish's team showed that the bloodstreams of men eating vegan for a year had nearly eight times the cancer-stopping power, a series of elegant experiments showed that women could boost their defenses against breast cancer after just two weeks on a plant-based diet. See the before and after here. If you or anyone you know has ever had a cancer scare, this research will make your heart soar. Because there is real, true hope -- something you can do to stave off "the big C."

So, the top three leading causes of death used to be heart disease, cancer, then stroke, but the latest CDC stats place COPD third -- lung diseases such as emphysema. Surprisingly, COPD can be prevented with the help of a plant-based diet, and can even be treated with plants. Of course, the tobacco industry viewed these landmark findings a little differently. Instead of adding plants to one's diet to prevent emphysema, wouldn't it be simpler to just add them to the cigarettes? Hence the study "Addition of Açaí [Berries] to Cigarettes Has a Protective Effect Against Emphysema in [Smoking] Mice." Seriously.

The meat industry tried the same tack. Putting fruit extracts in burgers was not without its glitches, though. The blackberries "literally dyed burger patties with a distinct purplish color," and though it was possible to improve the nutritional profile of frankfurters with powdered grape seeds, there were complaints that the grape seed "particles became visible" in the final product. And if there's one thing we know about hot dog eaters, it's that they're picky about what goes in their food!

Onward to strokes: The key to preventing strokes may be to eat potassium-rich foods. Though Chiquita may have had a good PR firm, bananas don't even make the top 50 sources. The leading whole food sources include dark green leafy vegetables, beans, and dates. We eat so few plants that 98 percent of Americans don't even reach the recommended minimum daily intake of potassium. And if you look at killer number five -- accidents -- bananas (and their peels) could be downright dangerous!

Alzheimer's disease is now our sixth leading killer. We've known for nearly 20 years now that those who eat meat -- including chicken and fish -- appear three times more likely to become demented compared to long-term vegetarians. Exciting new research suggests one can treat Alzheimer's using natural plant products such as the spice saffron, which beat out placebo and worked as well as a leading Alzheimer's drug.

Diabetes is next on the kick-the-bucket list. Plant-based diets help prevent, treat, and even reverse Type 2 diabetes. Since vegans are, on average, about 30 pounds skinnier than meat-eaters, this comes as no surprise; but researchers found that vegans appear to have just a fraction of the diabetes risk, even after controlling for their slimmer figures.

Kidney failure, our eighth leading cause of death, may also be prevented and treated with a plant-based diet. The three dietary risk factors Harvard researchers found for declining kidney function were animal protein, animal fat, and cholesterol, all of which are only found in animal products.

Leading killer number nine is respiratory infections. With flu shot season upon us, it's good to know that fruit and vegetable consumption can significantly boost one's protective immune response to vaccination. Check out the short video "Kale and the Immune System," and you'll see there's not much kale can't do.

Suicide is number 10. Oh yes, vegan food even has something good to offer on this one! Cross-sectional studies have shown that the moods of those on plant-based diets tend to be superior, but taken in just a snapshot in time one can't tease out cause-and-effect. Maybe happier people end up eating healthier and not the other way around. But this year an interventional trial was published in which all meat, poultry, fish, and eggs were removed from people's diets and a significant improvement in mood scores was found after just two weeks. It can take drugs like Prozac a month or more to take effect. So you may be able to get happier faster by cutting out animal foods than by using drugs.

Drugs can help with the other conditions as well, but instead of taking one drug for cholesterol every day for the rest of your life, maybe a few for high blood pressure or diabetes, the same diet appears to work across the board without the risk of drug side-effects. One study found that prescription medications kill an estimated 106,000 Americans every year. That's not from errors or overdose, but from adverse drug reactions, arguably making doctors the sixth leading cause of death.

Based on a study of 15,000 American vegetarians, those that eat meat have about twice the odds of being on antacids, aspirin, blood pressure medications, insulin, laxatives, painkillers, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers. So plant-based diets are great for those that don't like taking drugs, paying for drugs, or risking adverse side effects.

Imagine if, like President Clinton, our nation embraced a plant-based diet. Imagine if we just significantly cut back on animal products. There is one country that tried. After World War II, Finland joined us in packing on the meat, eggs, and dairy. By the 1970s, the mortality rate from heart disease of Finnish men was the highest in the world, and so they initiated a country-wide program to decrease their saturated fat intake. Farmers were encouraged to switch from dairies to berries. Towns were pitted against each other in friendly cholesterol-lowering competitions. Their efforts resulted in an 80 percent drop in cardiac mortality across the entire country.

Conflicts of interest on the U.S. dietary guidelines committee may have prevented similar action from our own government, but with our health-care crisis deepening, our obesity epidemic widening, and the health of our nation's children in decline, we may need to take it upon our selves, families, and communities to embrace Food Day ideals of healthy, affordable, sustainable foods by moving towards a more plant-centered diet. If we do, we may be afforded added years to enjoy the harvest.

For a plan on how to eat this way, check out The Lean!

For more by Kathy Freston, click here.

For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

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We asked two experts in plant-based eating -- Amy Lanou, Ph.D., an associate professor of health and wellness at the University of North Carolina Asheville, and Vandana Sheth, R.D., C.D.E, a Los Angeles-based dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- for their advice for people who are just starting out on a vegan diet.

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  • 1. Eat The Same Amount As Your Pre-Vegan Days

    Always hungry on your new vegan diet? You may not be eating enough, says Lanou. "What people find when they move to a more whole-foods diet built from plant foods, is they have to eat larger quantities of food," she says. "People find themselves hungry or not feeling full and it's because the caloric density of the food they're eating is lower." For example, you can't expect to go from eating a sandwich that has meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato, to a sandwich with only lettuce and tomato and expect to feel the same amount of fullness, she says. So you "have to eat more food, and that happens anytime you're taking out, or removing, the calorie dense foods from your diet."

  • 2. Don't Seek Out Vitamin B12

    There are a myriad of plant-based options to get most of our body's essential nutrients -- you can get calcium, for example, from leafy green vegetables and tofu instead of milk, and you can get omega-3 fatty acids from chia seeds and flax seeds instead of fish. But a big mistake many new vegans make is not going out of their way to find a plant-based source of vitamin B12, which is vital for proper neurological development and functioning, Sheth says. The nutrient "primarily comes from animal products, so make sure you're getting it either through things like fortified cereals or plant-based beverages fortified with B12," Sheth adds. Lanou explains that because the body is able to store up vitamin B12 for a long period of time, you may not even notice that you're deficient until a year or more after you've started a vegan diet. Older people who are going vegan should talk with their doctors about getting enough vitamin B12, Sheth notes, because the "intrinsic factor" in our bodies that help us absorb vitamin B12 diminishes with age.

  • 3. 'If It's Vegan, It Must Be Healthy'

    When some people start a vegan diet, they load up on foods like processed veggie burgers, processed veggie cheese, processed veggie hotdogs, and other, well, <em>processed</em> veggie-based foods. While this can help you to stick to your meat- and animal-free goals, some of these foods aren't giving you the nutritional benefits you would get if you actually ate whole, real, non-processed foods, Lanou says. "The benefit of going from an omnivorous diet to a vegan diet has to do with what you're taking out <em>and</em> putting in," she says. "If you're putting things in that are too similar, you may not be getting all the benefits you could be getting." Sheth agrees, saying that she discourages her clients switching to a vegan diet only to rely solely on those processed vegan foods. "Those are also heavily processed -- high in sodium and fat. But you wont want to live off that either -- it's <em>still</em> a processed food," she says.

  • 4. Always Eat The Nuts/Salad When You Are Out And About

    Many restaurants and stores now have plenty of options for plant-based eaters -- but not all of them. So, it's wise to carry some delicious, nutritious back-up options if you find yourself in a place where you have nothing to really eat. "You can always find a bag of peanuts or cashews somewhere, and that's not bad food, but you don't want to live on that," Lanou says. And the same goes for restaurants -- don't feel like you always have to have the salad if you're out at a place that serves meat-centered dishes, Sheth says. "You can customize and say, 'I'll have the grains and vegetables that come with the steak,' but ask if they have tofu or a bowl of chili so you can easily have all the nutrients you need," she adds.

  • 5. Don't Listen To Your Body

    Every time you alter your diet pattern, it will take about three weeks for your body to adjust, Sheth says, so don't be discouraged if you're feeling strange or still adjusting your eating habits when you first start. And don't take cravings as a sign that your body "needs" a certain food (a bacon craving doesn't mean your body needs bacon!) as it could just mean you need to reassess what nutrients you're consuming. "If you're craving meat or bacon, what have you been eating the last few days? Maybe you've just been living off salads, so you may not be getting adequate heart-healthy fats," Sheth says. "See if you can balance it out. Is it the fat your craving? The salt? Just assess what you're doing and see if you're meeting all your nutritional needs." Lanou advises people to listen to their bodies, and adjust accordingly. "If your body is telling you it's hungry, eat. If it's telling you something doesn't feel good when it's in your stomach, buy something else," she says.

  • You've Got Vegan Food's Benefits

    In this edition of You've Got, Kathy Freston tells you all about the health benefits and variations of Vegan food.

 

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