If everyone stopped eating meat, at least one-third of early deaths could be prevented, according to Harvard scientists presenting at the Unite to Cure Fourth International Vatican Conference.
Around 200,000 lives could be saved each year as a result of the diet shift, claimed Dr. Walter Willett, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard Medical School.
Presenting to delegates at the conference, he said: "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."
He added: That's not even talking about physical activity or not smoking, and that’s all deaths, not just cancer deaths. That's probably an underestimate as well as that doesn’t take into account the fact that obesity is important and we control for obesity.
"When we start to look at it we see that healthy diet is related to a lower risk of almost everything that we look at.
"Perhaps not too surprising because everything in the body is connected by the same underlying processes."
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Top plant-based physician Dr. Neal Barnard - President of the Committee for Responsible Medicine - also presented at the conference.
He said that the positive effects of vegetarian and vegan diets have been underestimated, adding: "I think people imagine that a healthy diet has only a modest effect and a vegetarian diet might help you lose a little bit of weight. But when these diets are properly constructed I think they are enormously powerful.
"A low-fat vegan diet is better than any other diet I have ever seen for improving diabetes.
"With regards to inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis we are seeing tremendous potential there too. Partly because of things we are avoiding and cholesterol but also because of the magical things that are in vegetables and fruits which just aren't in spam."