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Does low meat consumption increase or decrease life expectancy in humans?

By Robyn Chuter, 17th Aug 2015

The priests of the Paleo movement constantly preach that humans evolved eating large amounts of meat (for evidence pointing in the opposite direction, see my Hot Topics April 2013 and June 2014 webinars), and that therefore we need to eat meat regularly – as the major source of daily calories – in order to achieve optimal health.

Optimal health may mean different things to different people, I suppose. Young women tend to equate being thin with being healthy, while young men tend to think BIG = healthy.

Less subjectively, one of the ways that statisticians calculate the health status of a nation, or its ethnic or cultural subgroups, is by examining and comparing life expectancy.

I think most people would agree that a diet that promotes optimal health would be one that allows people to live longer, in good physical and mental condition. If the Paleo folks have got it right, people who eat little to no meat should suffer poorer health, and die sooner due to the higher intake of carbohydrate, and lower intake of protein that inevitably accompanies a low- or no-meat diet.

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So what does the science show?

Back in 2003, researchers from Loma Linda University in southern California reviewed findings from six different studies of the dietary habits of adults in North America and Europe, and Californian Seventh Day Adventists, to answer the question:

Does eating meat very seldom (less than once a week) increase life expectancy?
The answer, in a word, was ‘yes’. Of the six studies examined, four showed a significant trend toward longer life in those who ate meat infrequently, a fifth study showed a nonsignificant increase in life expectancy in people who ate meat infrequently, and the sixth showed virtually no association between meat eating and longevity (1).

In two of the studies that found an association between lower meat consumption and longevity, it was also found that a longer duration of adherence to a low-meat diet (more than 20 years) contributed to a significant decrease in risk of death, and a 3.6 year increase in life expectancy.

Now, you might be thinking that a 3.6 year increase in life expectancy doesn’t sound like much, but it’s actually more impressive than the contribution made by modern medicine – both preventive services and therapeutic interventions – to increased lifespan in the second half of the twentieth century:

“Three of the seven years’ increase in life expectancy since 1950 can be attributed to medical care” (2).
Think about that for a minute. All the innovations in diagnostic technology; cancer screening programs; surgical techniques; device, vaccine and drug development and every other new-fangled thing from 1950 until the article cited above was published in 1995, added just 3 years to life expectancy – and at a truly extraordinary financial cost. To think that the same result could have been achieved just by encouraging people to minimise or avoid eating flesh foods!

For further comparison,

• If every smoker quit smoking, the population as a whole would gain about 1½ years of life expectancy.
• If you’re overweight, you would add roughly 6 months to your own life expectancy if you returned to normal weight, while if you’re obese you’ll gain up to 1½ years.
• If you’re sedentary but otherwise healthy, you could increase your life expectancy by as much as 12 months just by getting off the couch, while if everyone did as much exercise as the fittest people in society, the population would gain 2-2½ years of life expectancy (3).

Now how good does limiting or eliminating meat sound to you?

You may be thinking at this point that maybe there are newer studies than this 2003 review, which provide more support for the Paleo position on the central importance of meat. In a word, nup.

A 2014 literature review found that among Seventh Day Adventists – a population already known for enjoying a roughly 10 year longer life expectancy than the average American – those who avoid meat enjoy

• Lower BMI;
• Reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer – especially of the colon risk reduction for cancer of the colon, other sites in the gastrointestinal tract, and prostate; and a dramatically lower risk of dying of breast cancer;
• And a longer life expectancy;

when compared to non-vegetarians (4).

Channelling Professor Julius Sumner Miller, the researchers were inspired to ask ‘Why is it so?’ The answer, it turns out, goes beyond the simple avoidance of meat. When Californian Seventh Day Adventists nudge meat off their plates, they tend to replace it with legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, washed down with extra serves of fruits and vegetables, all of which have been found to have disease-fighting and lifespan-extending properties. British vegetarians, on the other hand, tend to replace the dead animal parts with dairy products and fake meats, which is probably why they don’t enjoy any longer lifespan than health-conscious meat-eaters (5).

So here’s the deal on diet and lifespan: Eating meat regularly will shorten your lifespan, but if you want to add the maximum possible number of years to your life – as well as adding life to your years – you need to eat health-promoting whole plant foods that are rarely eaten by people who eat meat-based meals, not a slab of isolated soy protein doused with salt, artificial colours and flavour enhancers and extruded from a factory production line!

– See more at: http://empowertotalhealth.com.au/meat-consumption-life-expectancy/#sthash.b2wBTU56.dpuf

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