For many baby boomers, former president Bill Clinton among them, vegetarian diets — including vegan ones, which eschew all animal products — have become a way of life. Much of the reason for that, doctors say, is that this demographic group is heading into prime time for health issues and sees vegetarianism as a way to protect their bodies. Yet for boomers these diets can carry some risks that don’t concern those in their 30s or 40s. As we age, our nutritional needs change and are harder to meet.
About 2.5 million Americans over the age of 55 are vegetarian according to a 2012 Harris poll conducted for the Vegetarian Resource Group, and doctors and researchers say interest in such diets is growing. The prominence of some aging vegetarians stokes this trend: In addition to Clinton (age 65), there is Paul McCartney (70), retired tennis player Martina Navratilova (55) and actor Ian McKellen (73). Less famous but nevertheless impressive vegetarians include Fauja Singh, an India-born Briton who at 101 years old runs marathons.
It’s clear from research that forgoing meat can improve health. “Vegetarianism can be used as a way to combat many conditions that plague boomers: heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity. We now know, for example, that such a diet can lower your blood pressure,” says Boston University registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake, citing numerous recent studies.
In an article published in 2005, Susan Berkow, a certified nutrition specialist, and physician Neal Barnard analyzed 11 observational studies and found that vegetarians tend to have lower blood pressure than meat-eaters. The reasons behind this are not well understood. According to the authors (both of whom are affiliated with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which promotes a vegetarian diet), probably one of the most important is the generally lower body weight of vegetarians due to the abundance of fiber in their diets, which causes them to feel full faster and helps with insulin control.
Since the risk of death from a stroke in middle age rises significantly as blood pressure rises, it is no surprise that vegetarians tend to face fewer cardiovascular issues than the rest of us. In an article published in April in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Harvard researchers found that the more red meat you usually consume, the more likely you are to succumb to heart disease. Adding three ounces of meat to your daily diet (above what you normally eat) elevates the risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 16 percent. For processed meat (think sausages and bacon), the numbers are even more striking: Increasing consumption by one serving a day — that would be just one more hot dog — elevates the long-term risk of death from cardiovascular disease by 21 percent.
Beyond damaging your heart, researchers tend to agree, eating red meat increases the risk of colorectal and other cancers. Similarly, a 2004 investigation by researchers from the Harvard Medical School found that middle-aged and older women who ate red meat more than five times a week had a 29 percent higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than those who indulged in it less than once per week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calculated that in 2010 almost 27 percent of Americans over the age of 65 had diabetes.