Vegans vs meat-eaters: who lives longer?

Veganism has potential disease prevention links, but it is less clear if this means they live longer than meat-eaters.
Veganism has potential disease prevention links, but it is less clear if this means they live longer than meat-eaters.
Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
  • Vegan diets are increasing in many parts of the world, including South Africa.
  • But meat consumption is nowhere near slowing down - predictions suggest the world will consume more meat in the coming years.
  • While plant-based diets have been linked to better overall health, evidence has not confirmed that it is link to longevity.

Going vegan is in vogue. Whether you opt for "green" eating for health benefits, animal welfare, environmental concern or religious reasons, you're part of the global trend towards plant-based eating.

It's a market that's fast exploding: projections for the plant-based dairy alternatives market are expected to reach $32 million in 2031, News24 previously reported.

In South Africa, these food items are increasingly receiving dedicated shelf space. This isn't surprising, since 67% of South Africans are likely to try and 59% willing to buy plant-based meats, research by the Credence Institute in Stellenbosch found in 2021.

READ MORE | Making certain dietary changes could add up to 10 years to your life, new study finds

While the demand for vegan food has soared, the craze for these foods have not yet overtaken meat consumption.

According to Our World in Data, the global demand for meat is growing: over the past 50 years, meat production has more than tripled and the world now produces more than 340 million tons each year. 

Meat is a critical source of nutrients. Red meat, in particular, contains nutrients that are beneficial to health, including iron, vitamin B-12, and zinc, explains Medical News Today

But ongoing research suggests vegan diets - which avoids foods derived from an animal (including meat, dairy and eggs) - are high in fibre, complex carbohydrates, and water content from fruits and vegetables; have nutritional value and can help you live a healthy life. A vegan diet is typically rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

READ MORE | The longest-living people on Earth eat these 6 foods

People who follow plant-based diets also have a lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer, compared to those who eat meat, research shows

But when it comes to vegan versus meat-based diets, which can help you live longer? To get to the bottom of it, we look at studies assessing the link between plant-based, as well as meat-based, diets and longevity.

Taking a look at the evidence

A 2014 study found that in healthy individuals, a vegan diet may be less effective at reducing hunger than meat meals, but that the latter was more likely to trigger more oxidative stress in people with diabetes, which may lead to a greater need for insulin.

In 2012, the researchers behind a major review of vegans and vegetarians in the UK, US, Germany and Japan suggested vegans have a 9% lower risk of death from all causes, compared with meat-eaters.

But one study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that while veganism can lower rates of certain chronic diseases, it was less clear whether this was directly linked to a lower risk of early death.

Other research, which particularly looked at vegetarians' diet in the UK and Australia, reported they were no more likely to live longer than non-vegetarians.

More research needed

Brooke Jacob, a registered dietitian in the US, told Live Science that despite its link to potential disease prevention, "more research is needed to definitively conclude that vegans live longer than non-vegans".

A 2020 review of 32 studies involving more than 715 000 people found that shifting just 3% of calorie intake from animal protein (meat, poultry, fish, or dairy products) to plant protein was linked to a 10% decrease in death from any cause over the study period.

However, the researchers, from Harvard and Tehran University wrote: "The new findings don't prove that favouring plant-based proteins will add years to your life, but many other studies have associated high intakes of red and processed meats with shorter lifespan."

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A study published this year concluded that cutting back on red meat intake and processed foods and changing to a plant-based diet can add 13 years to your life, but the authors noted some limitations of their work, adding that "some caution must be used when interpreting these [results]."

As Live Science explains, anecdotally, it appears that it may not simply be the diet that vegans enjoy - multiple studies suggest they also live healthier lives overall.

Similarly, Healthline explains that researchers theorise the association between people who follow vegan diets and live longer, on average, than non-vegans has to do with two key points: eating a healthy diet and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, such as exercising regularly and avoiding smoking.

What we need to bear in mind is that correlation does not imply causation, and evidence at this stage is simply not robust enough to draw firm conclusions. 

READ MORE | Plants on your plate will protect your heart

The authors of a 2022 review that combed through a range of studies note that several studies indicate that pesco-vegetarians - but not vegans - show a reduced risk for overall mortality compared to meat eaters, "although a vegan dietary pattern is also associated with reduced risk of cancer, hypertension, and diabetes compared to that for regular meat eaters."

They added: "Despite extensive research, the type, quantity, and combination of nutrients that optimise healthy longevity remain highly controversial."

These authors also believed that there was not any single, special longevity diet that you should follow. Instead, you should focus on a set of fundamental principles associated with a healthier life and extended lifespan.

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