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Living Longer and Better: Health Benefits from the Vegetarian Diet

Clifford Korf 
Clinical Director, 
Physician Assistant Program Union College

Does the vegetarian diet really make a difference?

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Since the beginning of time, man has searched for the secret of youth or how to become a healthy functioning centenarian. Ponce de León’s quest for the “fountain of youth” is one of the classic stories of man’s search for eternal youth and health. More recently, stem-cell research has attempted to find a key to preventing aging or illness.

However, long before man attempted to discover or invent ways to prolong life, God gave us the “formula” for preventing the common diseases that plague mankind today. In 2 Chronicles 7:14 we are told, “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (emphasis mine).

Exodus 15:26 adds another component to maintaining health and preventing diseases such as were put upon the Egyptians. Speaking to His people, God said, “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in his sight, and wilt give ear to his commandments, and keep all of his statutes, I will put none of these diseases upon thee, which I have put upon the Egyptians: for I am the Lord that healeth thee” (emphasis mine).

This leads us to one of the very first provisions that God made for us. Genesis 1:29 describes how things were when God made them “perfect.” “And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat [food].”

Fruit. In the perfection before sin destroyed God’s perfect plan, He gave us fruit to eat. When God restores perfection, He will again provide food in the form of fruit—twelve fruits, to be specific. Revelation 22:2 reveals, “. . . and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.”

Ellen White wrote, “The people have seldom accredited their sufferings to the true cause—their own wrong course of action. They have indulged in intemperance in eating, and made a god of their appetite” (Counsels on Diet and Foods, p. 121). She also noted, “Many persons bring disease upon themselves by their self-indulgence. Others have disregarded the laws of health in their habits of eating and drinking, dressing, or working” (The Ministry of Healing, p. 227).

Moral Power. “The controlling power of appetite will prove the ruin of thousands, when, if they had conquered on this point, they would have had moral power to gain the victory over every other temptation of Satan. But those who are slaves to appetite will fail in perfecting Christian character. The continual transgression of man for six thousand years has brought sickness, pain, and death as its fruits. And as we near the close of time, Satan’s temptation to indulge appetite will be more powerful and more difficult to overcome” (Testimonies for the Church, 3:492).

As man returns to a Garden of Eden diet, a vegetarian diet, scientific research confirms that this diet is responsible for the prevention, regression, or even the reversal of many of the diseases present in our society today. This gives credence to dietary truths found in the Bible and in Ellen White’s writings.

The medical literature reveals that large vegetarian populations have been studied. As a rule, they live approximately eight healthy years longer, with lower rates of the most common medical problems such as hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, and numerous cancers. The studies are numerous and impressive. I will survey some of them here, to show the kind of confirmation that exists today for the dietary program the Lord showed His people long ago.

Scientific Confirmation. The American Dietetic Association’s position paper on vegetarianism states, “Scientific data suggest positive relationships between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk for several chronic degenerative diseases and conditions. . . . [I]t is the position of the ADA that appropriately planned vegetarian diets are healthful, are nutritionally adequate, and provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. . . . [V]egetarian diets low in fat or saturated fat have been used successfully as part of comprehensive health programs to reverse severe coronary artery disease.”1

A 1997 symposium at Lake Buena Vista, Florida, called “Summit on Cholesterol and Coronary Disease,” was published in The American Journal of Cardiology. The Symposium concluded that “Vigorous cholesterol lowering with diet (especially a Vegetarian diet), drugs, or a combination of diet and drugs has been shown to slow, arrest, or even reverse atherosclerosis.”2

The British Medical Journal (BMJ ) concluded in 1994 that those who do not use meat and who avoid the consumption of a high-protein, high-fat diet were not as likely to develop diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis.3

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that following a plant-based diet (i.e., fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) with low use of animal products was most important in preventing or recovering from atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).4

A 1999 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition followed 34,192 California-based vegetarians, all Seventh-day Adventists, and found an overall healthier life and lower risks of diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and arthritis among them, compared to non-vegetarians.5

Concerns. Neal Barnard, President of The Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine, in a letter to the Secretary of Agriculture in 1996, expressed concerns about the validity and value of the Food Pyramid as it is today. A few of the cosponsors of the letter included notables such as Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dr. Charles Atwood, Dr. William Castelli, Dr. Hans Diehl, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., Dr. Dean Ornish, and Dr. John McDougall, to name a few. All of these have authored numerous books and articles in the mainstream scientific literature and are well respected in their areas of practice.

Following are excerpts from Dr. Barnard’s letter. “Heart disease, cancer, stroke, hypertension, obesity and other serious illnesses are epidemics in America . . . . Dietary factors play an important role in the etiology and course of these diseases . . . . Dietary changes that go further are both feasible and timely, and can potentially save many lives.

“The scientific literature clearly supports dietary guidelines which encourage the use of vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains. In contrast, diets based on meats, dairy products, and added vegetable oils are linked with a variety of chronic degenerative diseases. To the extent that more Americans adopt plant-based diets, a reduction in the prevalence of chronic disease and of the costs associated with them is likely.”6

Dr. William Castelli, former director of the world-famous Framingham study in Massachusetts, has stated on numerous occasions that for every 100 mg of cholesterol eaten per day, there is an increase in the blood cholesterol by 5 mg%. Cholesterol is only found in animal products and animal by-products. Hypercholesterolemia is also known to be a significant risk factor in the development of atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease. Therefore, it is necessary to examine diet more seriously in order to further reduce cholesterol and thereby reduce the incidence and progression of atherosclerosis.

Researchers observed 11,000 British vegetarians in a seventeen-year study to investigate the association of dietary habits with mortality, especially as relating to heart disease and certain cancers. During the study, the vegetarians died at a rate nearly 50% less than that of the general population.7

The American Heart Association recommends reducing fat intake to less than 30% of one’s daily calories, mostly by eating “lean” meats within a balanced diet. A study evaluating the results of this diet discovered that 79% of the people on it developed more atherosclerosis despite reducing their LDL cholesterol. This study, entitled “The Lifestyle Heart Trial,” was one of the first randomized clinical trials to see if we could stop or reverse coronary atherosclerosis without using lipid-lowering drugs.

Another group in the study, the “intensive lifestyle change” group, followed a diet of only 10% fat and less than 5 mg of cholesterol. They included aerobic exercise, stress management training, smoking cessation, and group psycho-social support. For comparison, the control group ate a diet of 26% fat and 250 mg of cholesterol. After one year the “lifestyle” group had a 37.2% reduction in LDL, a 91% reduction in symptoms of angina, and a 2.2% overall regression of atherosclerosis. The control group had a 6% reduction in LDL but a 165% increase in anginal episodes and a significant progression of atherosclerosis.8

A 1998 study compared mortality rates of more than 76,000 vegetarians and non-vegetarians over about a decade, adjusting for age, gender, and smoking. Compared to the non-vegetarians, the vegetarians had a 24% reduction in mortality from ischemic heart disease. In addition, the non-vegetarians died significantly younger. The authors concluded that vegetarians have a lower risk of dying from ischemic heart disease than non-vegetarians have.9

Blood pressure as well as cholesterol responded well to the vegetarian diet. When non-vegetarians with elevated blood pressure were placed on a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and cereals for only eight weeks, their blood pressure (both systolic and diastolic) declined by 12.2 mmHg. Similar participants on the Standard American Diet (SAD) experienced no change.10

The Oxford Vegetarian Study selected 6,000 vegetarians and 5,000 non-vegetarian control subjects in the United Kingdom between 1980 and 1984 and followed them for 12 years. The vegans—those using no animal products at all—had lower total cholesterol and LDL-cholesterol and a lower mortality rate. The most striking results revealed the association between eating animal fats and the risk of dying from ischemic heart disease. Such heart disease was 57% less frequent in life-long vegans than in those who ate meat.11

Cancer. In general, populations around the world who eat a very low-fat vegetarian diet have the lowest rates of cancer. Those who live on a diet higher in fat and cholesterol have the highest rates of cancer.

Substantial scientific evidence shows that certain foods can enhance the body’s immune function while other foods can impair it. According to a recent German study, vegetarians have more than twice the natural killer cell activity than is found in those who consume meat. This study suggests that vegetarians may have much more power to kill cancer or to keep it in check. The greater immune strength likely comes from the vegetarians’ diet with low fat content, higher fiber, and an abundance of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and other nutrients that enhance the immune system.12

A study of more than 122,000 American nurses reported that women who ate meat daily were twenty-five times more likely to develop colorectal cancer than those women who ate meat less than once a month.13

We know that dietary changes are a key factor in reducing total mortality. Current recommendations call for adopting many of the attributes of a vegetarian diet.14

Research has also linked dairy foods to cancer. There appears to be a direct relationship between the amount of dairy products consumed and the risk of cancer. Consuming two glasses of milk per day increases your risk of cancer by 20%. More than two glasses per day increases a man’s risk of prostate cancer by 400%. A U.S. study compared a state by state use of dairy products with the overall rate of breast cancer. The more dairy products (milk) a state consumed, the greater the risk the people had of dying from breast cancer.15

Chemicals in the diet are affecting both men and women; research is shifting now to see if the hormones that the cattle industry uses are completely safe for everyone. Hormones seem to stimulate the start of cancer by acting on chemical, physical, or viral agents and promote the growth and metastasis of tumors once they have started.16

Other Reasons. Beyond health reasons, many choose the vegetarian lifestyle for humane, ecological, and religious concerns. But the vast majority of vegetarians follow this diet out of concern for their health. They are willing to change their diet to prevent medical illnesses. What they do, basically, is eliminate animal products from the diet and reduce the percentage of saturated fat they consume. These people want better health and longer life and they want to feel good.17

A substantial amount of solid research confirms the power of a vegetarian diet to reduce dietary risk factors. Literally a thousand and more such articles in print, from all segments of study, confirm this information. Dr. David Heber from UCLA Medical School feels “this is a wake-up call to all doctors who prescribe a dietary program far too modest to affect the disease process.” For doctors to ignore the facts is irresponsible. It is well-known that physicians, physician assistants, and medical personnel can influence patients to adopt a very low-fat vegetarian diet. The reverse of this is also a known fact—patients can be “discouraged” from following a program if they are not encouraged by their health care providers.

In conclusion, sufficient information in the Bible, Ellen White’s inspired writings, and the scientific literature supports the vegetarian diet as very beneficial in the prevention, regression, and even the reversal of the conditions discussed in this article.

In the context of this discussion, a motto that we health professionals have been taught and think about almost every day of our practice is appropriate: “Above all else . . . do no harm.” When we know that a proven practice is beneficial for our patients and we do not recommend it to them, then we are actually “doing harm” to them. This matter becomes imperative when we realize that “the controlling power of appetite will prove the ruin of thousands, when, if they had conquered on this point, they would have had moral power to gain the victory over every other temptation of Satan. But those who are slaves to appetite will fail in perfecting Christian character” (Testimonies for the Church, 3:491, 492).

I challenge the readers of this article to study the vegetarian diet. Objectively evaluate how it affects health and wellness, incorporate it into their personal lives, and then recommend it to their church family, friends, family members, and co-workers. It can help us all toward living longer and better. 


NOTES

1 “Position of the American Dietetic Association: Vegetarian Diets,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 97 (1997): 1317-1321.

2 “A Symposium: Summit on Cholesterol and Coronary Disease,” The American Journal of Cardiology 82/10B (1998): 83T.

3 Margaret Thorogood, et al., “Risk from Cancer and Ischaemic Heart Disease in Meat and Non-meat Eaters,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 308 (1994): 1667-1670.

4 A. C. Arntzenius, et al., “Diet, Lipoproteins, and the Progression of Atherosclerosis: the Leiden Intervention Trial,” New England Journal of Medicine 312/13 (March 28, 1985): 805-811.

5 G. E. Fraser, “Association between Ischemic Heart Disease and All-cause Mortality in non-Hispanic White California Seventh-day Adventists,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70/3 supp. (1999): 532S-538S.

6 Quoted in “Diet for a New Century—Dietary Pyramid,” Lifeline 11/3-5 (1996): 34. Used by verbal permission from Dr. Hans Diehl.

7 Timothy J. A. Key, et al., “Dietary Habits and Mortality in 11,000 Vegetarians and Health Conscious People: Results of a 17-year Follow-up,” BMJ: British Medical Journal 313 (1996): 775-779.

8 Dean Ornish, et al., “Intensive Lifestyle Changes for Reversal of Coronary Heart Disease,” JAMA: Journal of the American Medical Association 280 (1998): 2001-2007.

9 T. J. Kay, et al., “Mortality in Vegetarians and Non-vegetarians: a Collaborative Analysis in 8,300 Deaths among 76,000 Men and Women in Five Prospective Studies,” Public Health Nutrition 1 (1998): 33-41.

10 R. B. Singh, A. R. Sircar, “Can Dietary Changes Modulate Blood Pressure and Blood Lipids in Hypertension?” Journal of Nutritional Medicine 2/1 (1991):8-17.

11 Paul Appleby, “The Oxford Vegetarian Study: an Overview,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 70/3 supp. (1999): 525S-531S.

12 Quoted in “Diet for a New Century—Dietary Pyramid,” Lifeline 11/3-5 (1996): 18.

13 Ibid., p. 21.

14 Gordon M. Wardlaw, et al., Contemporary Reference for Nutrition (Mosby, 1994), pp. 120-140.

15 Neil Nedley, Proof Positive, 3rd. edition (Ardmore, Okla.: Neil Nedley, 1999), p. 245.

16 Leticia M. Diaz, “Hormone Replacement Therapy, or Just Eat More Meat: the Technological Hare vs. the Regulatory Tortoise,” Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 27/3 (Spring 2000): 391.

17 Quoted in “Diet for a New Century—Dietary Pyramid,” Lifeline 11/3-5 (1996): 3-4.