If you could do something to reduce your risk of disease and help you live longer, would you do it?
Researchers at the University of Oxford have published a landmark paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America that may have just the answer you’re looking for.
Recognizing that unhealthy diets and obesity are among the biggest contributors to disease and premature death globally, the authors attempt to model the potential impact of dietary change. The results are staggering: According to the authors, if everyone, globally, were to follow World Health Organization Guidelines for healthy eating which includes a diet low in saturated fats, sugars and salt, and high in vegetables and fruits, 5.1 million deaths could be avoided each year. A global move to vegetarianism would save 7.3 million lives annually and veganism could prevent 8.1 million deaths each year.
More than half of these avoided deaths (51 per cent) projected by the authors were due to the reduction in red meat consumption and the remainder of the risk reduction was split between increased fruit and vegetable intake and reduced obesity that would result from the update of these healthier dietary patterns.
As poor diet is this biggest risk factor for mortality globally, improving our diet has a big impact on some of our top causes of death. In the model, about 45 to 47 per cent of all avoided deaths due to healthier eating were from reduced heart disease, 26 per cent from stroke, 16 to 18 per cent from cancer, and 10 to 12 per cent from Type 2 diabetes. These diseases are all among the top 10 causes of death for Canadians.
Saving money as well as lives
Studies about the environmental and health impacts of diet have been common in the media lately, but what is unique about this particular report is that the authors also report on the potential economic impact of dietary change. Perhaps surprisingly, the economic benefits of reduced health care costs due to healthier diets may even outweigh the economic benefits of dietary changes on the environment.
This type of research is not without its critics. As this paper is based on modelling of future outcomes, it is based on assumptions and predictions that may turn out not to be exactly as predicted. It is important to also look at ongoing research on people and populations. The weight of evidence continues to build in favour of healthier diets, including vegetarian and vegan diets in particular and their impact on improved health and disease risk reduction. Recent research raised questions about the potential risk increased inflammation and cancer in multi-generational vegetarian communities, however this finding was based on one population in Pune, India and is contradictory to most other research that points to reduced incidence of cancer for vegans and vegetarians.
While it is unlikely that we will see an immediate global move to veganism, Canadians can start making changes like Meatless Mondays, and following the recommendation to fill half our plates with fruits and vegetables. A national poll conducted by the Vancouver Humane Society reported that 33 per cent of Canadians are either vegetarian or trying to eat less meat. The long-term impact of these changes may be better health, and lower health care costs too.