Retired IBM art director, former graphic artist and cartoonist Bob White looks slender and fit for his 74 years. His wife, Ruth, a former hatha yoga instructor and homemaker, also looks healthy and much younger than 72.
So, what is their secret?
The Whites have been lavo-octo vegetarians since 1960. Bob initiated the change in their diet when he was introduced to vegetarianism through a correspondence meditation course. A lavo-octo vegetarian is someone who does not consume meat or fish, but does consume eggs and dairy products. Vegans consume no animal products.
"Whenever Ruth cooked me a vegetarian meal, I raved about it, and when she didn't, I didn't say very much!" laughs Bob.
Ruth came around after awhile.
"I was embarrassed about it," she says. "But I liked the idea of not eating animals. I love animals! So when I thought about it some more, I thought, 'I don't want to eat them.'"
Vesanto Melina, dietician and co-author of Becoming Vegan and Becoming Vegetarian points out the large body of research that indicates the health benefits of a vegetarian or vegan diet.
"We are certain that with a vegetarian or vegan diet, your tendency to gain weight as you age is less," says Melina.
Studies also indicate that the incidence of obesity, diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular disease are all significantly less in the vegan population, and longevity is increased. Melina, 64, switched to a vegan diet at age 50 after being lavo-octo vegetarian for 15 years; she feels so energetic, she has taken up triathlons.
"Some seniors might be from an era when vegetarianism was thought to be a risky diet," says Melina. "The research going on is saying, 'hey, to what extent will you live longer, how much is it going to help your health?' They're not saying, 'this is risky, you're probably going to get protein malnutrition' - they're not saying that, at all, anymore. Research studies are saying you may live one, three, or five years longer."
In a 2002 report, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended that in order for older persons (age 60 ) to meet their nutritional needs they must "emphasize healthy traditional vegetable and legume-based dishes." The report highlights a study of the traditional Greek diet (Greeks have the longest life expectancy after Japanese, and the lowest rates of coronary heart disease, breast and colon cancer in the world).
Most notable about the Greek diet is the high consumption of vegetables, legumes, fruits, and cereals and the low consumption of dairy products, meat and meat products.
Despite the documented health benefits, many people continue to have misconceptions about vegetarianism, such as protein deficiency.
"Even the biggest, strongest animals aren't carnivores - like elephants!" says Bob. Indeed, protein can be obtained from a variety of sources, such as lentils, grains and vegetables, says Melina.
Breaking the news about their vegetarianism is not always easy, and the Whites emphasize the importance of being non-judgmental.
"There are some people who are offended by the fact that you don't eat meat - it's a very touchy subject. You have to let them know it's nothing to do with them, it's our choice," says Ruth.
Melina has found that older men seem to be more accepting of vegetarianism. A number of men she knows have had colon cancer scares, heart attacks, hypertension, or other serious health issues.
"Whereas before they would eat whatever and fire up the barbecue, they're starting to realize how damaging that has been for them," she says.
High fruit and veggie intake protects against those things that will strip one's quality of life away as they age, such as macular degeneration, vision loss, cataracts, respiratory disease, and breast, stomach and colorectal cancer, according to the WHO.
In addition to the health benefits, many vegetarians have ethical reasons for choosing not to eat meat. Most disturbing for Melina was learning how animals are treated in factory farms, especially pigs.
Bob and Ruth have also considered the source of their food.
"You don't think of [meat] as what it is," says Bob. "When you go to the store, you see it all neatly packaged."
"I think there's a lack of consciousness. People ask, 'would you like a leg of lamb?' I love lambs!" says Ruth.
While seen as radical in the past, vegetarianism is now more mainstream, and it's easier to find alternatives to meat. For these seniors, eating a plant-based diet is a lifestyle choice, which includes exercise and spiritual growth.
"It's nice to be able to care about animals and people," says Melina.