Dedicated carnivores have been known to characterize vegetarians as weak flower children who subsist on tofu, brown rice, and dandelion greens. Vegetarians may—or may not—embrace pacifism. But they are certainly not weak, or sickly. Mock if you will, meat eaters, but according to mounting evidence, people who eat strictly plant-based foods are likely to have the last laugh. Literally.
That’s because, compared to their meat-eating brethren, vegetarians are significantly less likely to develop any number of major lifestyle diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease (heart attack or stroke), and even certain types of cancer. And that means they live longer.
Colorectal cancer is the second-leading cause of death from cancer in the United States, for instance. But among vegetarians the incidence of the disease tends to be lower than among dedicated meat eaters. Of course, things are seldom completely cut and dried. For example, in one recent large controlled study, published in the prestigious journal, JAMA Internal Medicine, vegetarians who also consumed fish (pesco-vegetarians) enjoyed even greater protection against colon and rectal cancers, compared to non-vegetarians (i.e. meat eaters), or other vegetarian eating patterns (some include eggs and/or dairy products, for example). The addition of fish—a source of anti-inflammatory (and essential) omega-3 fatty acids—evidently yields the greatest protection of all.
No Red or Processed Meat
Experts believe this particular form of vegetarianism is beneficial for a number of reasons. For one, like all vegetarian diets, it excludes red meat. Consumption of red meat, and especially processed meats (such as deli meats; sausages, bacon, bologna, etc.) has been repeatedly linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancers, as well as elevated risks of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and death from all causes.
Inflammation is thought to play a key role in this association. One emerging theory is that mammal meat possesses a compound that is treated as an allergen by the body. This allergen is unique to mammal meat—meaning beef, pork, lamb, or any other type of animal with fur that humans eat. It may provoke what is essentially an allergic-type reaction, according to the xenoautoantigen theory.
Fiber and Phytonutrients
The beauty of fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, leaves, shoots, tubers, mushrooms and every other imaginable form of plant life (okay, mushrooms are technically fungi) is that plant foods supply so many things we need, with no down side. The same simply can’t be said about “red meat”.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the value of fiber from plant foods. Healthy bowel movements are an important, dependable benefit of a plant-based diet. And that probably plays a role in the anti-cancer benefit of a plant-based diet. But there’s more to fiber. Certain forms of fiber (beta-glucans from oatmeal, for instance) contribute to lower cholesterol levels. And that, of course, is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.
Happy Gut/Healthy Body
Fiber also serves as the preferred food of beneficial gut bacteria. This is an often-overlooked benefit of a plant-based diet. Typical American diets—rich in meat products, processed foods, excess sugars and fats—tend to encourage the growth of less desirable species of these gut-dwelling microorganisms. That’s unfortunate, because emerging research indicates that a healthy “gut microbiome” influences everything from the functioning of the immune system, to mood, to the risk of certain diseases, and even appetite. In essence, to attract and keep the highest quality of gut tenants, you need to provide the best foods: plants.
Plant foods also provide all the essential nutrients, provided you pay attention to sources of complete protein, and consider taking fish oil supplements if you are not a pesco-vegetarian. Fish supplies the essential nutrients called omega-3 fatty acids. While there are plant sources of these vital nutrients, they must be converted within the body to the two forms already present in fish, in order to be of use to the body. The conversion of the plant form of omega-3 is highly inefficient, which may explain why pesco-vegetarians are evidently the healthiest people of all.