Do Flexitarians Live Longer?


“Do Flexitarians Live Longer?” What accounts for the benefits
of a Mediterranean-style diet? An anatomy of health effects was published
and the single most important component was the high consumption of plant foods. In contrast, fish and seafood consumption,
the only animal foods promoted in the Mediterranean diet
did not seem to help. In fact, if you look at four of the major
dietary quality scoring systems, which have all been associated
with extending lifespan, lowering heart disease
and cancer mortality, They all share only
four things in common: more fruit, more vegetables,
more whole grains, and more nuts and beans. They are all built on a common core
of a diet rich in plant foods, whereas opposite food patterns,
rich in animal foods, poor in plant-based foods (in other words, the Western diet),
are associated with higher risks. So we need to optimize
the food environment to support whole grains,
vegetables, fruit, and plant-based proteins. That’s one of the things all the so-called
Blue Zones have in common, the longest living populations, not only
social support and engagement, daily exercise, but nutritionally they all center
their diet around plant foods, reserving meat mostly for special occasions. And the population with perhaps the
longest life-expectancy in the world, doesn’t eat any meat at all,
the California Adventist vegetarians. So if the primary benefits
of the Mediterranean diet are due to all the whole plant foods, what if you went back
to the famous PREDIMED study and created a pro-vegetarian
scoring system? We know vegetarians live longer, but because a pure vegetarian diet might
not easily be embraced by many individuals, maybe it would be easier to
swallow if we just tell people more plant-based foods,
less animal-based foods. But would just moving along the
spectrum towards more plants actually enable people to live longer? They thought of this food pattern as a
“gentle approach” to vegetarianism, figuring that if it improved survival
it would be an easily understandable message for health promotion –
more plant foods, less animal foods. So you get points for eating fruit, vegetables, nuts,
grains, beans, olive oil, and potatoes, but get docked points for any animal fats,
eggs, fish, dairy, or any type of meat or meat products. Of course, that means you get a higher score the more potato chips
and French fries you eat. That’s why I prefer the term
whole food plant-based diet since it’s defined by what you eat,
not by what you don’t eat. When I was teaching up at Cornell
I’d have “vegan” students apparently living off of
French fries and beer; Vegan does not necessarily mean
health-promoting. But did it work? Regardless of healthy vs. unhealthy, if you give points to people for any kind
of plant food, processed or not, and detract points for
any kind of animal product consumption, do people with higher scores live longer?
Yes. The maximum pro-vegetarian score is 60, but even just scoring 40 or more was
associated with a 40% drop in mortality. In fact, there were so few deaths
in the highest category of adherence to the pro-vegetarian diet, they had to
merge the 2 upper categories for their analysis. This is evidence that simple advice
to increase the consumption of plant-derived foods with
reductions in the consumption of foods from animal sources
confers a survival advantage. A live-a-longer-live advantage. This modest change is realistic,
affordable, and achievable because a sizable proportion of their
population was already eating that way. So one can get significant
survival benefit without a radical shift to the exclusive consumption of plant foods, a more gradual and gentle approach
more easily translatable into public policy. For example, a 41% drop in
mortality rates in the United States would mean saving the lives of hundreds
of thousands of Americans every year.

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