Vegetarian live longer! (On paper, at least.)

by Denis Faye - The Nutrition Nerd | June 5, 2013

Broccoliheads the world over are rejoicing over a new study appearing in The Journal of the American Medical Association: Internal Medicine showing that vegetarians have a lower mortality rate than their meat-eating peers.

Vegetarian diets are associated with lower all-cause mortality and with some reductions in cause-specific mortality. Results appeared to be more robust in males. These favorable associations should be considered carefully by those offering dietary guidance.

I’m torn by this study because I could have two possible reactions. One approach would be to point out some of the stats:

The mortality rate was 6.05 (95% CI, 5.82-6.29) deaths per 1000 person-years. The adjusted hazard ratio (HR) for all-cause mortality in all vegetarians combined vs nonvegetarians was 0.88 (95% CI, 0.80-0.97). The adjusted HR for all-cause mortality in vegans was 0.85 (95% CI, 0.73-1.01); in lacto-ovo–vegetarians, 0.91 (95% CI, 0.82-1.00); in pesco-vegetarians, 0.81 (95% CI, 0.69-0.94); and in semi-vegetarians, 0.92 (95% CI, 0.75-1.13) compared with nonvegetarians.

I’ve been a pesco-vegetarian for 14 years and, based on the hazard ratios, it looks like we have the lowest rate of all. In other words, “In your face, you kale-chompin’ hippies! I win!”

But I’m not going to do that. Instead, I’m going to point to a quote from a Reuters article on the study.

Alice Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at Tufts University in Boston, said the participants who were vegetarians were healthier overall. “It’s important to note that the vegetarians in this study were more highly educated, less likely to smoke, exercised more and were thinner,” Lichtenstein, who was not involved with the new study, told Reuters Health.

There are just too many confounding factors to say categorically that vegetarian eating is categorically healthier. However, it is safe to say that eating a healthier diet is categorically healthier. I also think it’s safe to say a diet loaded with fresh fruits and veggies is categorically healthier.

I choose to eat pesco-vegetarian because I did a ton of research and determined this was the healthiest possible diet for me. I was a vegetarian for five years before that and a hardcore carnivore before that. In my opinion, that’s the key to why pescos (or “fishetarians” as Steve Martin refers to himself as) live longer. It’s not necessarily a better diet. Rather, it’s a more persnickety diet. To arrive at the point that you choose to eat in such a contrived way, you generally need to put a lot of thought into it. It’s not like standard American diet eaters–who put no thought into their diet at all–or many versions of the vegetarian diet, which is often arrived at by college sophomores doing it to get into the yoga pants of that hot, patchouli-smellin’ alternative chick working at the co-op.

When someone puts that much effort into deciding what they’re going to eat, they probably arrive at a couple conclusions. First, they figure out that good foods make them feel good and bad foods make them feel bad. Next, they discover which macronutrient level works best for them individually. In other words, they move beyond the dogma of the latest “expert” diet book when it comes to protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Instead, they listen to the world’s best expert–their own body.

So instead of jumping over to vegetarianism based solely on the latest study, I encourage you to look at your current food system. It’s entirely possibly to take any diet, be it meat-filled or meat-free, and turn it into a healthy way of eating.

But no matter what path you take, you still need to eat your veggies.

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