One-third of all premature deaths could be prevented if people stopped eating meat, claims one of Harvard’s top nutritionists. According to calculations conducted by Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition, and his team, hundreds of thousands of lives could be saved annually in the developed world by a switch to vegetarianism.
The prominent professor's remarks during a panel at the Unite to Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference in Vatican City on April 26, suggest that more research needs to be done on the risks of a meat-heavy diet. Additionally, the panelists' discussion called into question recent diet fads, such as the paleo diet, that focus on the consumption of meat and avoidance of grains and other plant-based carbohydrates.
“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 deaths could be prevented,” Willett announced at the conference.
The physician and nutrition researcher did concede that there are limitations of these results. For instance, it would largely depend on what people chose to eat instead of meat products.
“If people choose soda, white bread, and doughnuts, we may be worse off,” Willett wrote in an email to The Daily Meal, “but we can benefit if these animal foods are replaced with nuts, legumes, soy, and whole grains.”
He noted that cutting out meat could also work to prevent climate change.
“Reducing consumption of animal foods, especially red meat and dairy foods, will reduce production of greenhouse gases,” Willet said. “Ultimately, human health depends on planetary health, so this can be an important contribution to those who will follow us.”
A vegan diet could be even more beneficial, he says — but conceded that his team did not study the effects of avoiding animal products entirely.
Willett, who serves as the Fredrick John Stare Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, also cannot confirm that vegetarianism results in any specific health benefits; but this isn’t the first time experts have hypothesized about the benefits of cutting out meat.
“The evidence is substantial and continually growing regarding the health advantages of eating a plant-based diet,” Julieanna Heaver, registered dietitian and author of Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiots Guide) 2nd Edition, told us in an email. “A plant-based diet is the only diet that has ever been able to reverse advanced-stage cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes, and has consistently been shown to lower mortality and reduce hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and hyperglycemia, and medication needs.”
For those looking to adopt a vegetarian diet, for health reasons or otherwise, Heaver recommends increasing consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. She prepares these basic foods with simple additions such as spices and herbs to please her palate.
Heaver insists that meatless meals don’t have to be boring, and she’s right — here are 50 vegetarian recipes that don’t skimp on flavor.