Can eating a plant-based diet set you up for a longer, healthier life? New research shows that it can, as a review of thousands of vegetarians versus meat eaters shows that avoiding meat sets you up to have healthier biomarkers than meat-eaters. The new study looked at data from more than 166,000 adults in the UK, with the findings true across adults of any age and weight and regardless of whether they smoked or drank alcohol.

"Our findings offer real food for thought",  Celis-Morales, Ph.D., the lead researcher at the University of Glasgow, said in a statement about the significance of the study, which was presented at the European Congress on Obesity, a virtual event earlier this month.

"As well as not eating red and processed meat, which have been linked to heart diseases and some cancers, people who follow a vegetarian diet tend to consume more vegetables, fruits, and nuts which contain more nutrients, fiber, and other potentially beneficial compounds. These nutritional differences may help explain why vegetarians appear to have lower levels of disease biomarkers that can lead to cell damage and chronic disease."

The analysis of the dietary data found that vegetarians had significantly lower levels of 13 biomarkers including LDL, or so-called “bad cholesterol, apolipoprotein A and B (which are both linked to cardiovascular disease), insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1; a hormone that encourages the growth and proliferation of cancer cells), and creatinine (a marker of worsening kidney function), among several other biomarkers linked to disease, inflammation, and cell damage. It’s worth noting that of the study participants, only 4,111 participants were categorized as vegetarian based on their self-reported diet, so it’s a much smaller pool of vegetarians and vegans in the mix than meat-eaters.

The authors and other experts unaffiliated with the study remind us that the research was observational, meaning that it indicates the results don’t show cause-and-effect but are correlational. “That's an important distinction,” says Keith-Thomas Ayoob, EdD, RD, FAND, Associate Clinical Professor Emeritus, Department of Pediatrics, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and founder of Cut to the Chase Nutrition.

A diet with a diversity of plant-based foods is healthiest, lowers risk of disease

“Still, we've known for a long time that the wider the diversity of plants you eat, the better.  A vegan or vegetarian diet can be quite nutritious and loaded with antioxidants, especially if it has a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and nuts,” adding that there’s no guarantee since some so-called “plant-based” diets can involve a very limited variety of foods and create nutrition gaps in someone’s diet like not getting enough calcium or vitamin D. (For more on that, check out seven supplements to consider when starting a plant-based diet).

“A truly varied and balanced vegan diet can be loaded with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods.  If it has lots of whole foods, it'll also be loaded with different types of fiber, too, from all the fruits, veggies, beans, and whole grains,” he continues, emphasizing that key goals for vegans are keeping their diet  "varied" and "balanced.” So whether you’re a full-fledged vegan or dabbling in eating more plant-based, consider the importance of eating fruits and veggies across the rainbow of colors and loading up on nutrient-dense foods like beans, whole grains, and nuts and seeds. “It's not just about what vegans omit from their diets, it's also about what they include and consume on a daily basis,” he adds, pointing out another drawback of the study: it lumped processed and unprocessed meat together, which “may not tell us much.”

Bottom line: Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains, and your body will thank you, even if it's from apolipoprotein, creatinine, or other tough-to-pronounce biological substances singing your plant-based praises.