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Nancy Copperman, a dietician at North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. , said that the fiber in vegetarian diets may be what's driving the survival edge. "It's not just fruit and vegetables, but all types of fiber [including whole grains] that seems to really reduce health risks," she said. "The new study pushes the literature that we are building about the impact that whole grains and fruits and vegetables can have on your health."

But Rebecca Solomon, a nutritionist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, noted that plant-based diets can be beneficial only if they are done right. "You need to make sure that you have a good nutrient balance despite omission of certain or all animal products," she added.

For example, she said, some vegetarians may overdo the carbohydrates and fats, which can lead to weight gain and its associated health problems.

"My general advice is that you don't need to be a vegetarian to improve your health and lifespan," she said. "Eating lean protein such as poultry and fish and following some of the principles of the Mediterranean diet, which includes generous amounts of vegetables, fruits and whole grains and is not red-meat heavy, can be very beneficial."

For a diehard vegan like Stephanie Prather, 45, the news may come as no surprise.

Prather hasn't eaten any animal products in more than two years, and actually changed careers midstream to become a vegan pastry chef. Her impetus was a high-profile documentary about the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Not only does she feel better, Prather said, but she has lost close to 20 pounds since giving up all animal products in her diet.

The latest research follows a British study released in January that showed vegetarians had about a third less risk of hospitalization or death from cardiovascular disease than meat-eaters did.

The study, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, included nearly 45,000 people from England and Scotland, about a third of who were vegetarians. And the research showed that the vegetarians had a 32 percent lower chance of being hospitalized or dying from heart disease. They also typically had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than non-vegetarians.

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