Vegetarian Diet Benefits: Plant-Based Eating Could Prevent One in Three Early Deaths

A healthy diet can be hard to follow when tempting sweets and snacks are abundant—and sometimes less expensive than healthy foods. But it could actually be a matter of life and death.

Following a healthy diet that consists of mostly plant-based foods can actually prevent death, Walter Willett, professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard, said Thursday at the Fourth International Vatican Conference.

On a panel called "The plant food revolution—Good for you and good for the environment," Willett said he and his team have been looking at the number of deaths that could be prevented by diet alone and found that a conservative estimate is about one in three.

"We've been doing some calculations looking at that very question," he said.

"How much could we reduce mortality shifting toward a healthy, more plant-based diet, not necessarily totally vegan, and our estimate is about a third of deaths could be prevented by a healthy diet. That's not even talking about physical activity and not smoking...and for several reasons that's probably an underestimate."

He later explained that a shift toward plant-based sources of protein can significantly lower the risk of heart disease while offering other health benefits as well. In the United States, heart disease is one of the leading causes of preventable death among people under the age of 80, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We see that healthy diet is related to lower risk of almost everything that we look at. Perhaps not too surprisingly, they're all connected as part of our body, and they share a lot of the same fundamental processes," Willett said during the panel.

vegetables at the market
Vegetables are pictured at the President Wilson market on March 14 in Paris. A plant-based diet could help reduce the risk of death by one third, a professor from Harvard said. Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images