To be a vegetarian or not to be a vegetarian

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According to a July 2012 Gallup Poll, five percent of Americans report being vegetarians. Well, for those five percent, a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that vegetarians may live longer than their carnivorous counterparts, although results were somewhat inconclusive.

The study looked at the eating patterns of about 70,000 Seventh-day Adventists from 2002 to 2007, using a food-frequency questionnaire administered at baseline. Participants were divided into five groups based on the questionnaire: nonvegetarian, semi-vegetarian (consuming meat less than once a month), pesco-vegetarian (includes fish and seafood), lacto-ovo-vegetarian (includes dairy and egg products), and vegan (excludes all animal products). After a six-year follow-up period, about 2500 people died. Researchers found that risk of death for vegetarians was 12 percent lower than nonvegetarians. They also found that this association was stronger in men than in women, and only the vegetarian men had lower rates of death from cardiovascular disease and ischemic heart disease, compared to non- vegetarian men.

However, the findings from this study conflict with previous findings by British researchers who reported that from their investigation of about 47 thousand subjects, rates of death during the study period were the same for vegetarians and nonvegetarians. And researchers suggest that it may not actually be the vegetarian diet that is potentially leading to increased longevity, but rather the increased consumption of fiber in the form of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, as well as other plant foods.

Dr. Robert B. Baron, vice chief of the division of general internal medicine at the University of California San Francisco, makes an important point in an accompanying editorial: First and foremost, dietary advice needs to be given to patients based on their own dietary history and preferences, their motivation to change their diet, and their clinical circumstances.

ACSH s associate director of public health, Ariel Savransky, says, People should not look at this study and immediately come to the conclusion that they should adopt a vegetarian diet. The study is an observational one, and therefore no cause-and-effect conclusions can possibly be drawn. Moreover, the 12 percent improvement is hardly conclusive in any event and even the authors acknowledge that other factors are coming into play. They note that the association between vegetarian diets and longevity may have little or nothing to do with the consumption of meat. Dr. Baron s point is a good one. When evaluating your diet, think about your own individual circumstances, and ultimately what s important is making sure to consume a well-balanced diet full of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.