Even if you are not ready to embrace a totally vegetarian diet, you may want to spend more of your shopping time at farm stands and the produce aisles of your local store.

Most people know that a vegetarian diet can decrease their risk of certain chronic diseases such as hypertension, ischemic heart disease (IHD), and diabetes. Now researchers have found that a diet of mostly fruits and vegetables can also decrease the risk of death from any disease, including cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The link between diet and mortality risk had not previously been well established. “We wanted to look at the question of diets in an ethnically diverse, geographically diverse (throughout the U.S.), large study population, and see if it bore out our previous findings of a beneficial effect of vegetarian diets on mortality, ” Michael Orlich, lead author on the study, told TheDoctor.

The important take-home message, not just from this study, but from a lot of other studies, is that dietary choices have an effect on health and longevity.

Vegetarian diets were associated with a decreased risk of mortality from kidney disease and endocrine diseases, such as diabetes. "I would categorize these findings as preliminary at this point, because it is dealing with smaller numbers, but nonetheless, they were intriguing findings," said Orlich, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at Loma Linda University.

The results were not terribly surprising, according to Orlich. They support what the investigators had seen in a previous, smaller study.

The study surveyed 73,308 men and women who were Seventh Day Adventists. Researchers used a questionnaire about dietary habits to divide the study participants into five groups: non-vegetarian, vegan, ovo-lacto vegetarian, pesco-vegetarian, and semi-vegetarian. They found that the risk of death from certain diseases among those in the combined vegetarian groups was 12 percent lower than that of the non-vegetarian group.

The association between diet and mortality risk appears to be stronger for men than women, with significant reduction in cardiovascular disease mortality and IHD death in vegetarian men compared to nonvegetarians. Unfortunately, the findings suggest that a vegetarian diet does not significantly reduce the risk of CVD and IHD mortality in women. The researchers are not sure why men seem to benefit more than women from a vegetarian diet.

Orlich says that the important take-home message, not just from this study, but from a lot of research, is that dietary choices have an effect on health and longevity. This study, along with some other evidence, suggests that certain vegetarian diets may reduce mortality and increase longevity.

In the future, Orlich says that he and his team plan to use the same data from the same study population to look at specific questions about the effect of diet and certain foods on longevity. The scientists are awaiting the results of research efforts that examines the association between diet and the risk of developing certain cancers.

The study is published online in JAMA: Internal Medicine.