Who Lives Longest: Meat Eaters Or Vegetarians?

TheOur ability to live a long life is influenced by a combination of our genes and our environment. In studies that involve identical twins, scientists have estimated that no more than 30% of this influence comes from our genes, meaning that the largest group of factors that control how long a person lives is their environment.

Of the many possible environmental factors, few have been as thoroughly analyse or debated as our diet. Calorie restriction, for example, is one area that is being investigated. So far, surveys seem to show that restricting calories can increase lifespan, at the least in small beings. But what works for mouse doesnt inevitably work for humans.

What we eat as opposed to how much we eat is also a hot topic to study and meat intake is often put under the microscope. A study that tracked virtually 100,000 Americans for five years found that non-meat eaters were less likely to die of any cause during the study period than meat eaters. This effect was especially noticeable in males.

Some meta-analyses, which blend and re-analyse data from several examines, have also shown that a diet low in meat is associated with greater longevity and that the longer a person sticks to a meat-free diet, the greater the benefit. Not all studies agree, however. Some present very little or even no change at all in longevity between meat eaters and non-meat eaters.

What is clear is evidence that meat-free diets can reduce the risk of developing health problems such as type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and even cancer. There is some evidence to suggest that vegan diets maybe offer added protection above industry standards vegetarian diet. These findings are far easier to interpret as they report the actual event of being diagnosed with a health problem rather than demise from any cause.

So can we confidently say that avoiding meat will increase your lifespan? The simple answer is: not yet.

The problem with longevity

The first thing that is clear is that, compared with most other animals, humans live for a very long time. This attains it very difficult to run analyses that measure the effect of anything on longevity( youd have difficulty discovering a scientist willing to wait 90 years for a study to complete ). Instead scientists either look back at existing health records or recruit volunteers for surveys that use shorter time periods, measuring death rates and looking to see which group, on average, was largely likely to die first. From this data, claims are made about the effect certain activities have on longevity, including avoiding meat.

There are problems with this approach. First, seeing a link between two things such as eating meat and an early death doesnt inevitably entail one thing caused the other. In other terms: correlation does not equal causation. It may appear that vegetarianism and longevity are associated but a different variable may explain the link. It could be that vegetarians exercise more, smoking less and beverage less alcohol than their meat feeing equivalents, for example.

Maybe vegetarians exert more than meat eaters. Rasulov/ Shutterstock.com

Nutrition studies also rely on volunteers accurately and truthfully recording their food intake. But this cant be taken for granted. Survey have shown that people tend to underreport calorie intake and overreport healthy food intake. Without actually controlling the diet of groups of people and measuring how long they live, it is difficult to have absolute confidence in findings.

So should I avoid meat for a long and healthy life? The key to healthy ageing likely does lie in controlling our environment, including what we eat. From the available evidence it is possible that feeing a meat-free diet can contribute to this, and that avoiding meat in your diet could certainly increase your chances of avoiding cancer as you age. But theres certainly also proof to suggest that this really might work in tandem with avoiding some clearer dangers to longevity including smoking.

James Brown, Lecturer in Biology and Biomedical Science, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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