Nothing is more natural than wanting to protect your life so that you can do more of the things you enjoy, whether that’s being with your loved ones, playing video games, or watching game shows on Netflix or Hulu. How long a person lives is a measure of the joy of living in numbers. The more time you have on earth the more you can snuggle with your cats and talk to your friends, and the more TV can be watched.
Life expectancy is a common, if crude, metric that researchers use to determine the impact that a society’s choices and policies have on individuals. Studies of life expectancy tend to look at the average outcomes of groups of people. It is hard to predict the health outcomes of a single person, especially given the variety of factors that they might face. Are they vaccinated against COVID-19? Does their job allow them to breathe clean air around people who are masked? Is it easy for them to see a doctor and drink clean water? Do they live in an active warzone? But scientists design studies that try to control for as many variables as possible when trying to figure out the role of one factor compared to another.
In sussing out the studies, nutrition experts have found that there are some areas of life where eating vegan can certainly improve your odds of “staying healthy and avoiding life-threatening chronic illnesses.” Yet despite the lowered risk of acquiring ailments as revealed in group studies, vegans can and often do defy those odds. Like meat-eaters, vegans as a whole continue to suffer from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and COVID-19, sometimes fatally.
Do Vegans Live Longer Than Meat-Eaters?
Claims that vegans live longer usually rely on studies that are part of an ongoing conversation within science, so the question of whether adopting a vegan lifestyle will extend one’s lifespan remains open. In 2017, Alex Kasprak wrote for the fact-checking site Snopes.com that the claim that vegetarians live longer than meat-eaters is unproven.
Carol Adams, Patti Breitman, and Virginia Messina, the pro-vegan authors of “Even Vegans Die”, have said in an interview that “many people promote veganism by promising perfect health, weight loss, improved vitality, and disease-proof longevity. Yet vegans can and do develop serious illnesses.” Going vegan can have healthy outcomes, but vegans can of course also have chronic diseases, get sick, be fat, and die.
How Much Longer Do Vegans Live Than Meat-Eaters?
There is no consensus in scientific studies that vegans live longer than meat-eaters. However, studies do show that vegetarians, when compared with people who eat meat, have lower incidences of chronic diseases that are leading causes of death. David Robinson Simon writes in “Meatonomics” that “compared to a vegetarian, the typical meat-eater will die as much as ten years earlier.” Diet is a major factor in cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
Yet getting sick is not a personal failure, write Adams, Breitman, and Messina, and it’s important to say that vegans do get sick and die, despite the overall health benefits of eating plant-based foods. Acknowledging that vegans die can help address the problem of overselling vegan health, and help people feel proud of who they are, whatever health issues they are experiencing.
Why Do Vegans Live Longer Than Meat-Eaters?
There are many different types of vegans out there: so-called “junk-food vegans”, dietary vegans, raw-food vegans, whole-food vegans, and low-fat vegans, just to name a few. Some vegans overstate the health benefits of veganism and promote the idea that eating vegan will make you live longer. Veganism is widely known as a diet, but it is also a philosophy, a movement, and a lifestyle centered on being more compassionate to animals. This approach toward living beings requires facing one’s mortality, and Adams, Breitman, and Messina remind readers that there is nothing you can do “to ensure that you never get sick.”
Vegans Don’t Eat Meat
The diseases that tend to affect meat-eaters develop over a lifetime of dietary and other habits. David Simon Robinson’s analysis of studies showing lower risks of prostate cancer in men and breast cancer in women suggests that people who eat meat are two to three times more likely to die of these than vegetarians. In one study looking at diets and mortality rates, American and Canadian vegans had 15 percent lower mortality than meat-eaters.
Yet many authors who want to stick to the science have noted that there are inconsistencies and gaps in our collective knowledge, and it’s because the research is new and still developing. In studies comparing vegetarians and meat-eaters to vegans, Adams, Breitman, and Messina report that the average vegan has been found to weigh less, and has lower odds of getting diabetes, hypertension, and some cancers. However, they note that medical researchers have found that the healthiest, longest-living populations have plant-centered diets, not vegan diets. That means that the diet is mostly full of plant foods, with some animal-based foods.
Vegan Diets Are Often Rich in Nutritious Compounds
It is the whole-food vegans—not the “junk-food vegans”—that give veganism its reputation as regards chronic disease interventions. In studies on the health benefits of a diet heavy in vegetables and legumes, whole-food, plant-based diets are typically used. Unprocessed plant foods are good sources of antioxidants and are found widely in vegan diets. Antioxidants help protect the body’s cells from oxidative stress, which is related to many chronic diseases. Therefore, vegan advocates often feel comfortable concluding that eating vegan extends one’s potential lifespan.
Eating unprocessed plant foods is not a guarantee that people will not get colds, terminal illnesses, chronic diseases, and mental illnesses like depression. Yet what people eat does impact their health. For example, eating plant-based foods that are minimally processed can help people lower their saturated fat intake, cholesterol, and blood pressure while boosting their immune system and potassium levels. But nutrition experts are not in full agreement on what people should eat for optimum health, or even to what extent diet protects one’s health.
Vegans Tend to Have Healthier Lifestyles
Living a vegan lifestyle means having empathy for animals and other people, and caring for the environment. This lifestyle has huge benefits for public health, not just for one’s individual health. Climate scientists have found that reducing global meat consumption can help contain greenhouse gas emissions, thus reducing the damage caused by climate change that is inflicted on the lives of poor people around the world.
Richer countries such as the United States and European nations are emitting too many greenhouse gases through their consumption of meat, putting lives at risk through extreme weather events like floods, droughts, and heatwaves. Scientists from around the world agree that urging the wealthiest 10 percent of people in the world—many of whom live in the U.S. and Europe—to shift to plant-based diets is the best immediate demand-side strategy to curb the rate of climate change.
In adopting vegan diets, individuals in wealthy populations can help change the norms of their communities, which would enable larger-scale efforts to reduce meat consumption for more and more groups of people. The resulting impact of reduced greenhouse gas emissions could make life more manageable and less precarious for people who are living on the frontlines of climate change.
What Do Vegans Die Of?
Vegans die of the same causes as the rest of the population. In the United States, the top 10 leading causes of death in 2020 were heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, accidents (i.e., unintentional injuries), stroke, lung diseases (i.e., chronic lower respiratory diseases), Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia, and kidney disease. Rounding out the top 15 causes of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, suicide, hypertension, hypertensive renal disease, Parkinson’s disease, and sepsis (i.e., septicemia).
What You Can Do
Maintaining a vegan diet is often a smart way to manage certain conditions like diabetes or heart disease, but it is not a cure for any disease, nor does it guarantee protection from early death or other health ailments. As the authors of “Even Vegans Die” write, chronic illness, body size, wrinkles, bad skin, and other less desirable or stigmatized health conditions are independent of one’s veganism.
Ginny Messina, a vegan registered dietician, writes of two harms that often occur when people overstate the health benefits of veganism: disease- and body-shaming. Each can result when people promote the “vegan diet as a guarantee of health, beauty, and youth.”
Shaming is something one can direct toward oneself or toward others. Disease shaming, as Messina describes, is when people suggest that an illness is preventable and that acquiring that illness is a personal failure. Body shaming is a similar phenomenon when people criticize or blame people for their body size. Body shaming also happens when people blame or judge someone for having an illness that is then said to be the cause of one’s body size.
Shaming isolates people and prevents them from seeking help or sharing their diagnosis with others, Messina writes. Shaming can alienate people “who do not live up to some particular physical ideal.” Two actions you can do to create a more compassionate and respectful world for animals and people are:
- Go to Messina’s website to learn more about how to counteract shaming, including 10 tips to get rid of body-shaming in the vegan community.
- To learn more about accepting people experiencing some kind of impairment or limitation, without blaming them for it, it might be helpful to learn about disability and how the social model of disability challenges dominant narratives about disabled people.
Hemi is a writer, educator, and founder of Learning with Donkeys.