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To Be or Not to Be Vegetarian

Wednesday, August 03, 2016


In our study of pro-aging principles we have looked at a number of factors influencing longevity, including lifestyle choices (smoking and alcohol use) and dietary choices such as vegetarianism.

Have you been thinking about giving up meats? Before permanently clearing out the steak knives from your kitchen, consider some of the following effects of becoming vegetarian.

Virtually every medical study on vegetarian populations, including the prominent Oxford Vegetarian Study (5,000 British vegetarian subjects between 1980 and 1984) have concluded that vegetarians have lower cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians. However, a study in Lancet in June, 2001 reported that the Honolulu Heart Program — which focused on the cholesterol levels of more than 3,500 Japanese-American men aged 71-93 years, (not necessary what eating trends produced those cholesterol levels) — concluded that “Only the group with low cholesterol concentration … had a significant association with mortality.” The Program study demonstrates that having continuously low levels of cholesterol may lead to an early death.

One would assume that heavy meat eaters would have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, but a 2009 review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition on the aforementioned Oxford study reveals, “Within the study, the incidence of all cancers combined was lower among vegetarians than among meat eaters, but the incidence of colorectal cancer was significantly higher in vegetarians than in meat eaters.”  (Vegetarians demonstrated a 39 percent higher incidence of colorectal cancer.)

While it’s possible for vegetarians to consume adequate amounts of protein, calcium, iron and vitamin D (if supplementing properly or getting enough sunlight) to ensure proper muscle and bone development, one 2009 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that vegetarians had approximately 5 percent lower bone-mineral density (BMD) than non-vegetarians (possibly leading to more fractures).

One potential risk of becoming a vegetarian seems to be the lower level vitamin B12 in the blood.  B12 helps with metabolism, converting food into stable energy, utilizing iron, producing healthy red blood cells, and a host of other benefits.  The risk of low B12 levels, according to the study’s authors, can result in arteriosclerosis.

The National Institutes of Health, in June 2013, reported in a study (an analysis of 73,000 people), that Adults who eat a more plant-based diet may be boosting their chance of living longer.

Nearly half of the study participants were nonvegetarian, eating red meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs more than once a week. Of the remaining, 8% were semi-vegan (eating red meat, fish, poultry, dairy or eggs less than once a month); 29% were lacto-ovo vegetarians (eating eggs and/or dairy products, but red meat, fish or poultry less than once per month); 10% were pesco-vegetarians (eating fish, milk and eggs but rarely red meat or poultry); and 5% were semi-vegetarian (eating red meat, poultry and fish less than once per week).

Over about 6 years, there were 2,570 deaths among the participants. The researchers found that vegetarians (those with vegan, and lacto-ovo-, pesco-, and semi-vegetarian diets) were 12% less likely to die from all causes combined compared to nonvegetarians. The death rates for subgroups of vegans, lacto-ovo–vegetarians, and pesco-vegetarians were all significantly lower than those of nonvegetarians.

Those on a vegetarian diet tended to have a lower rate of death due to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and renal disorders such as kidney failure. No association was detected in this study between diet and deaths due to cancer.  The researchers also found that the beneficial associations between a vegetarian diet and mortality tended to be stronger in men than in women.

The researchers note several limitations to the study. Participants only reported their diet at the beginning of the study, and their eating patterns may have changed over time. In addition, they were only followed for an average of 6 years; it may take longer for dietary patterns to influence mortality.

The results of dietary studies must be viewed through the eyes of the researcher. Some differ in their definition of “vegetarian”. Vegans (who abstain from all meat, fish and dairy), do not seem to share the claimed benefits of ordinary vegetarians.

The bottom line: Longevity appears to depend on a number of factors not controlled in most studies; genetics, consistent exercise, adequate dietary intake, use of broad-spectrum multi-vitamin supplements, and proper lifestyle choices.

My conclusion: Do all things in moderation. Enjoy a plant based diet (with emphasis on colored veggies), eggs, milk, cold-water fish, and meats (mostly white with occasional red), a daily glass of wine, and a full spectrum multivitamin to supplement any deficiencies.  Keep a good attitude, and love your neighbor.

Spencer Thornton, MD, with the Biosyntrx staff