You know a plant-based diet is healthier—but did you know going meat-free may also dramatically extend your lifespan? Years of research show the longest-living populations eat less meat, and some studies suggest a meat-free diet may buy you more years on the planet—and a higher quality of life.
In general, studies suggest people with the highest meat consumption have an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, infections and other diseases. By contrast, a balanced vegan or vegetarian diet—high in antioxidants and fiber, low in saturated fat, with sufficient protein and important nutrients—can reduce your risk of disease and increase longevity.
Here's how going meat-free may protect you from the leading killers:
Heart Disease and Stroke
A plant-based diet is lower in saturated fat, which has been shown to increase risk of heart disease and stroke. Vegan and vegetarian diets are also naturally high in fiber, antioxidants and potassium, linked with lower rates of stroke and heart disease. One recent analysis found a plant-based diet reduces the risk of heart disease by as much as 25 percent, and earlier research shows going meat-free can even reverse existing heart disease.
A plant-based diet high in fiber and antioxidants protects against cancer, and studies show vegetarian and vegan diets can reduce total cancer risk by 8 to 15 percent. Animal products are higher in saturated fat, which is linked with higher rates of some cancers, and red meat in particular significantly increases the risk of lung, pancreatic, colorectal, breast, prostate and other cancers. One report concluded every three-ounce portion of red meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal, pancreatic and prostate cancer by as much as 17 percent.
Fruits and vegetables have a protective effect against cognitive impairment and dementia, and high meat intake, especially red and processed meats, is linked with an increased risk of dementia. In one study, a high intake of saturated fat doubled the risk of Alzheimer's disease, and unsaturated fats—like those found in avocados, olives, nuts and seeds—were linked with a lower risk. Vegetarian diets rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes improve focus and protect against cognitive decline, and some research shows a plant-based diet can slow and possibly reverse memory loss.
Plant-based diets are linked with a significantly reduced risk of diabetes. One reason: people who follow a plant-based diet are less likely to be obese, the leading risk factor for diabetes. Studies show vegans and vegetarians have the lowest body mass index (BMI), BMI increases as the number of animal foods in the diet increases, and omnivores have the highest prevalence of overweight and obesity. A plant-based diet also improves insulin sensitivity and glycemic control, and even studies that controlled for weight as a factor still showed a lower risk of diabetes among vegans and vegetarians.