(Updated March 2020) | A meat-free diet could cut the risk of premature death by as much as one-third, according to Harvard scientists.
According to the study from Harvard Medical School, at least 200,000 lives could be saved each year by going vegetarian. The figures, presented at the Unite to Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference in Vatican City in April 2018, looked purely at how diet affects health, The Telegraph reported.
“We have just been doing some calculations looking at the question of how much could we reduce mortality shifting towards a healthy, more plant-based diet, not necessarily totally vegan, and our estimates are about one-third of deaths could be prevented,” said Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Medical School.
Dr. Willet believes that the benefits of a meat-free diet have been underestimated. He continued: “When we start to look at it we see that healthy diet is related to a lower risk of almost everything that we look at. Perhaps not too surprising because everything in the body is connected by the same underlying processes.”
‘We’re Underestimating the Effect’
Dr. Willet is not alone in speaking to the health benefits of a meat-free diet.
At the conference, Professor David Jenkins of the University of Toronto — who is credited with creating the glycemic index — also promoted a plant-forward diet. Dr. Jenkins advised that humans would be healthier following a “simian” diet, similar to lowland gorillas, who eat vegetation and fruit. When he and his team recreated the animals’ diet in humans, they saw a 35 percent drop in cholesterol levels in two weeks, the equivalent of taking statins.
Dr. Jenkins described the drop as “quite dramatic.” He added, “We’re saying you’ve got a choice, you can change your diet to therapeutically meaningful change or you can take a statin. Drug or diet.”
Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), also weighed in of the health benefits of a plant-based diet. PCRM, a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., says it “combines the clout and expertise of more than 12,000 physicians with the dedicated actions of more than 175,00 members.”
Speaking to delegates at the conference, he said that people are “underestimating” how a vegan diet can prevent not only an early death, but also other diseases.
“I think people imagine that a healthy diet has only a modest effect and a vegetarian diet might help you lose a little bit of weight. But when these diets are properly constructed I think they are enormously powerful,” he said. Dr. Barnard also highlighted the “tremendous potential” of plant-based diets to alleviate inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
How Not to Die (Early)
Dr. Michael Greger also agrees that a plant-based diet can help prevent early death. The American physician is the author of “How Not to Die,” which delves into the way diet can influence disease.
Greger promotes the increased consumption of plant-based foods—especially greens, berries, legumes, flaxseeds, and turmeric—to ward off life-threatening diseases.
More research is linking vegan food to improved health, and meat, dairy, and eggs to an increased risk of disease. However, Americans are still eating animal products. A study from the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that American adults have not decreased their processed meat consumption over the past 18 years.
In 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) classed processed meat as a Group 1 carcinogen. The category is used when there is “convincing” evidence that something causes cancer, WHO explains on its website. Tobacco smoking and asbestos are also in this category.
According to the WHO, eating 50 grams of processed meat a day—roughly four strips of bacon or one hot dog—increases the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. Meat consumption has also been linked to diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease. However, plant-based foods can have the opposite effect, even reversing disease in some cases.
In an interview with Fox Business Network, Greger said, “We have tremendous power over our health destiny and longevity. The vast majority of premature death and disability is preventable with a plant-based diet and other healthy lifestyle behaviors.”
A study from the Cleveland Clinic found that eating red meat increases the risk of heart disease 1,000 percent more than a vegan diet. Separate research found that adhering to a plant-based diet could lower the risk of cardiovascular problems and early death as effectively as pharmacotherapies.
Earlier this year, a study from Cornell University published in JAMA revealed that regular meat consumption increases the risk of heart disease. The study tracked nearly 30,000 individuals over the course of 30 years.
Meat-Free Diet Benefits
Greger acknowledged that people suffering from health problems do have the “extra motivation” to revamp their diet. However, he pointed out that the “sustaining motivation” comes from “how good you feel when you start eating healthier.”
“All of a sudden you’re feeling better, you’re sleeping better, your digestion is better. And then you have that internal motivation to continue to eat healthier because you feel so much better. But you don’t know how good you feel until you give it a try,” he explained.
The analysis of the unchanging meat-eating habits of Americans highlights “the abject failure of the public health community to warn consumers about the dangers of processed meat,” Greger said. “Bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meat, sausage — these are known human carcinogens. We know they cause cancer in people. You know, we try not to smoke around our kids. But why are we sending them to school with a baloney sandwich?”
“Some of our leading killers can be reversed. For example, heart disease, the number one killer of men and women — arteries can be opened, heart disease reversed without drugs, without surgery, just a healthy enough diet centered around whole plant foods,” the doctor continued. “There’s only one diet that’s ever been proven to reverse heart disease in the majority of patients: a plant-based diet.”
He added, “You’d think that’d be the default diet. But instead, unfortunately, just not enough people know about the power they have at the end of their fork.”