Early in my career as a scientist and physician, the significant advantages of prevention rather than waiting to treat established disease became clear. Despite the great advances of modern medicine, the expense, sometimes discomfort, and lack of assurance of cure make medical treatment an inferior approach to the control of disease.
Now as principal investigator of the Adventist Health Study, I along with my colleagues have had the opportunity to collect data that in a rigorous scientific fashion allow us to investigate the value of a vegetarian diet. After many years of research by us (and others), the evidence is now clear: a plant-based diet provides a host of advantages compared to a diet containing much meat, as is commonly consumed among our neighbors in the United States and in many other parts of the world. Whether a small amount of dairy products detracts from this advantage is presently a focus of our work.
We now know, and have published evidence in medical journals, that U.S. vegetarian Adventists as compared to nonvegetarian Adventists have less hypertension, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, lower levels of fasting sugar and insulin, lower levels of C-reactive protein (a chemical associated with inflammation), less diabetes, and much less of a problem with obesity and being overweight.
In addition, there is clear evidence of moderately lower mortality among Adventist vegetarians when compared to nonvegetarians, particularly from cardiovascular and diabetes/kidney disease. The frequency of certain cancers also appears to be less among vegetarians.
Studies of 34,000 California Adventists back in the 1980s and 1990s demonstrated that as a group, Adventist men lived more than seven years and women more than four years longer than their non-Adventist neighbors, making them one of the longest-lived populations ever reported. Loma Linda (actually representing California Adventists) has been reported by National Geographic as the American “blue zone,” referring to an area of unusual longevity. Just as important, we have also demonstrated across the country that at each decade of life Adventists enjoy better physical and mental quality of life than do their peers who are not Adventists. Thus it appears that the extra years of life are generally good-quality years.
Much more work remains. And we hope in the future to have the opportunity to investigate lifestyle determinants of dementia, heart failure, arthritis, and other chronic diseases.
Adventists by definition are religious people. Thus we have also taken advantage of this opportunity to investigate within the Adventist community different degrees and minor distinctions of religious adherence and belief. How may these factors affect health?
Investigations are at an early stage, but we find that Adventists who use positive religious coping methods (to seek advice and support from God; to interpret stressful situations as opportunities to work with God for growth) are particularly less prone to depression and have better mental health. This in turn leads to some milder but positive effects on physical health.
People from many countries around the world who several decades ago moved to the U.S., within a generation or two suffer all the same problems as other Americans—often a very different profile of diseases than those in their countries of origination. Thus a poor lifestyle seems to affect all people in similar ways. We can reasonably expect approximately similar benefits, however, with the health approach that Seventh-day Adventists have been so fortunate to understand for 150 years.*
* Gary E. Fraser, M.B.Ch.B., Ph.D., principal investigator of Adventist Health Study 2; www.llu.edu/public-health/health/index.page?.