In Depth

Harvard says vegetarian diet could prevent one in three early deaths

The benefits of a vegetarian diet have been vastly underestimated, experts concluded

A third of all early deaths could be prevented by a vegetarian diet, according to a new scientific study.

The researchers at Harvard say their new findings indicate that people are vastly underestimating the benefits of a plant-based diet, according to The Daily Telegraph.

For example, while recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggested that 141,000 deaths a year in Britain were preventable, the new research from Harvard has produced a much higher figure: about 200,000 lives could be saved each year in the UK if people removed meat from their diets.

The findings were presented at the Unite to Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference in Vatican City this week by lead researcher Dr Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard Medical School.

Willett told the conference: “We have just been doing some calculations looking at the question of how much could we reduce mortality shifting towards a healthy, more plant-based diet, not necessarily totally vegan, and our estimates are about one third of early deaths could be prevented.”

“That’s not even talking about physical activity or not smoking, and that’s all deaths, not just cancer deaths. That’s probably an underestimate as well as that doesn’t take into account the fact that obesity is important and we control for obesity,” he added.

British Professor David Jenkins, of the University of Toronto, who developed the glycemic index which helps explain how carbohydrates impact blood sugar, also told the conference that the benefits of vegetarianism had been “undersold”.

Jenkins said humans would do better following a “simian” diet, similar to lowland gorillas who eat stems, leaves, vines and fruits rather than a “paleo” or caveman diet, which cuts carbohydrates but allows meat.

The Daily Mail cites a recent study by the University of Toronto which found that “a vegetarian diet could actually reverse certain health problems by the same margins as commonly used medications called statins”.

In the UK around 17.5 million people are eligible for statins to stave off heart disease, equating to most men over 60 and most women over 65. But “many complain of side effects and stop taking the drugs”, says the Telegraph.

Dr Jenkins added: “We’re saying you’ve got a choice, you can change your diet to therapeutically meaningful change or you can take a statin. Drug or diet.”

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