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 From The Desk of Clarence Bass



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Vegetarian Diets Extend Life

Some Variations Fare Better than Others

Vegetarians enjoy a 12 percent lower mortality rate than meat eaters, according to a large observational study led by Michael J. Orlich, MD, assistant professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University in California. (JAMA Intern Med, July 8, 2013)

I'm often asked my opinion of the vegetarian diet. I usually begin by saying that I don’t recommend extreme diets; they don’t work over the long term. Few people are willing to stick with a diet they don’t enjoy, especially one that bans their favorite foods. I then explain that I consider myself a near vegetarian. My diet is built around, but not limited to, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. The new study suggests that I’m on the right track.

The researchers compared four vegetarian diets—vegan (excludes all animal products), pesco-vegetarian (includes seafood), lacto-ovo vegetarian (includes dairy products and eggs), and semi-vegetarian (red meat, poultry, and eggs once a week or less)—with the nonvegetarian diet (meat and other animal foods regularly).

They followed 73,308 participants in the Adventist Health Study 2 for six years. The group included 48,203 women and 25,105 men; 8 percent were vegan, 10 percent pesco-vegetarian, 28 percent lacto-ovo vegetarian, 6 percent semi-vegetarian, and 48 percent nonvegetarian.   

Deaths during the 6-year follow-up totaled 2570: 197 vegans, 251 pesco-vegetarians, 815 lacto-ovo vegetarian, 160 semi-vegetarians, and 1147 non-vegetarians.

As noted above, vegetarians as a group had 12 percent lower death rate than nonvegetarians. The differences (adjusted as appropriate) within the vegetarian groups were also noteworthy. The pesco-vegetarians fared best, with a 19% lower mortality rate than the nonvegetarians. Vegans were next at 15% lower, lacto-ovo 9%, and the semi-vegetarians last at 8% lower than nonvegetarians. 

Vegetarians also tended to be older, more educated and most likely to be married, consumed less alcohol, smoked less, exercised more, and were thinner. Associations in the men were larger and more often significant than those in the women.

“These results demonstrate an overall association of vegetarian dietary patterns with lower mortality compared with the nonvegetarian dietary pattern,” the authors concluded. “They also demonstrate some associations with lower mortality of the pesco-vegetarian, vegan, and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets specifically compared to the nonvegetarian diet.”

Commentary that accompanied the JAMA report made it clear that healthy vegetarian eating is more complex than it might appear to a casual observer.  

There’s more to vegetarian eating than eliminating meat. A junk food diet devoid of meat won’t make you healthy. Vegetables, fruits, and grains should come mostly from whole foods; refined foods should be kept to a minimum. Added sugars and sugary drinks should also be watched carefully. Calorie control is, of course, always a consideration.

Meat should be replaced with foods containing complete protein. Soybeans or beans combined with rice or other grains is an option if you’re a vegan. Fish, eggs and low-fat dairy are options if your diet philosophy allows. If you eat red meat occasionally it should be wild or grass fed—and not processed. Meat from grain fed or partly grain fed animals contains more marbling and unhealthy saturated fat.

Finally, vegans must be especially careful to get all the essential nutrients. With careful meal planning it is quite possible to receive all the nutrients required for a healthy life without meat or fish. But it’s not easy. For example, protein, iron, zinc, and omega 3 fats must all be considered.

*  *  *

The Orlich study illustrates that there is a vegetarian diet for almost everyone. As the researchers wrote in introducing the study, “vegetarian diets represent common, real-world dietary patterns.” That probably comes as a bit of a surprise to those who dismiss vegetarian diets as rabbit food.

While the best vegetarian diet pattern is far from settled, the key features of healthy vegetarian eating are clear. Lower saturated fat and higher fiber consumption are generally recognized benefits of all vegetarian diet patterns. On the flip side of the same coin, large studies have linked increased red meat and processed meat consumption with higher mortality. Low meat consumption is, of course, the hallmark of all vegetarian diets.

As mentioned earlier, I think of myself as a near vegetarian. My diet doesn’t fit any of the vegetarian diet patterns in the Orlich study. I take from all four vegetarian categories. Again, the bulk of my diet comes from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. I also eat nuts, fish, eggs, and non-fat milk or yogurt on most days. Moreover, I have an occasional burger made with bison or grass fed beef. Carol makes sure that our patties are relatively small and the tomato and lettuce is thick. In addition to being a delightful treat, these intermittent additions may provide a nutritional boost.

I believe mine is an intelligent approach to vegetarian eating. I know that it is filling and satisfying. My taste buds are happy campers.

I don’t ask you to eat like me, but I do suggest that you consider it carefully. That’s also what Dr. Orlich and his colleagues ask you to do with the favorable associations in their study. They are not cause and effect findings, but they are consistent with many other observational studies.

For more details, see my diet philosophy in brief: http://www.cbass.com/PHILOSOP.HTM

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