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3 Reasons Vegetarians Can Age Faster (Controversial, but True)

by Cat Ebeling (with commentary by Mike Geary)
co-authors of the best-seller:  The Fat Burning Kitchen

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I am a big proponent of eating a large variety of plants (roots, herbs, spices, veggies, fruits, nuts, etc) for their amazing health benefits from phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, and other essential nutrients.

However, I am also very well aware that missing out on beneficial saturated fats, collagen proteins, vitamin K2, vitamin B12, DHA/EPA, and other vital nutrients that vegans and vegetarians are often low or deficient in can accelerate aging in people that choose to eat this way.  You’ll also see in this article how the types of foods that vegetarians and vegans often replace meats with (more grains and beans) can also accelerate aging in their bodies by contributing additional digestive irritants, as well as spiking blood sugar too often, and causing excessive “glycation” of cells due to the excess constant blood sugar.

As Nutritionists, we try to educate people that eating strict vegan has serious health consequences over time…and that including high quality fish, and at least some other animal-based foods is very important to achieve optimal health and slow aging.  There are many bioavailable and usable proteins, vitamins, minerals and fats that you can only get from animal-based foods—as well as avoiding the blood sugar highs and lows of the starchy, grain and carbohydrate-heavy diet that’s typical of vegetarians.

A look at a typical vegetarian diet would show a diet high in plant-based vegetable oils which are primarily omega 6 fats. Omega 6 fats have been known to increase inflammation in the body, including in the joints—contributing to arthritis, and in the blood vessel linings—exacerbating and increasing the chances for heart attacks and strokes as well as contributing to weight gain (belly fat), and even cancer.

I know a lot of vegans and vegetarians, and these days with all the issues surrounding climate change, greenhouse gas emissions and the environmental mess that large-scale industrial meat and dairy farms (factory farms) create—in addition to the poor quality nutrition that commercialized factory farmed meat and dairy provides—it can certainly sound like a good idea to try a vegetarian diet on the surface, but that ignores the FACT that there are good options for meats raised in a healthy manner, that eat the correct foods for their species, and are also raised in environmentally-friendly ways.  This is a very important distinction that most vegans and vegetarians ignore.

For every diet, there are a hundred different variations. There are healthy versions, and there are unhealthy versions. Vegans and vegetarians need to be especially vigilant in their dietary choices, or there can be unpleasant health consequences that can actually contribute to disease and aging, in spite of all the healthy advantages of eating a diet high in plant foods, fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals.

I can actually say this from experience, because I was a vegan for almost 15 years, and although I thought I was making educated and healthy choices in my diet, I ended up with quite a few health issues as a result. While I still eat a diet that is high in healthy plant foods, I avoid grains and get the essential protein, nutrients and fats that can only be found in animal foods like grass fed butter, raw cheese, and pasture raised meat and eggs.  There is just no better substitute, period.

It is true that many vegetarians actually age FASTER than their meat-eating counterparts, in part because of very vital missing nutrients or because the body cannot efficiently utilize or transform the plant-based version of these nutrients into usable nutrients. I actually noticed this in a good friend of mine who had decided to become vegan.

In just 4 short years, she not only had gained weight and said she was “famished all the time”, but her skin looked dry, wrinkly, and saggy. Her hair was dull and dry and grew very slowly. She said she had very little energy and actually quit her triathlon training that she had been doing as a meat-eater. She recently switched back about a year ago to a more Paleo-style diet and her skin now looks smooth, clear and glowing—and she lost weight and has tons of energy again! (Did I mention this lady is 62 years old?  And she’s THRIVING on a more balanced Paleo diet that includes healthy plants, but also plenty of healthy animal-based options, whereas eating vegan was making her look and feel terrible)

Let’s take a look at why some vegans and vegetarians actually age faster than their omnivorous counterparts:

1. Missing essential dietary fats necessary for healthy joints, proper heart and brain function, anti-inflammatory effects throughout the body, and smooth glowing skin 

Standard nutritional recommendations call for at least 500, with upwards of a 1,000-5,000 mg of omega 3 containing the vital components of EPA and DHA as being optimal for good health. EPA or Eicosapentaenoic Acid, and DHA or Docosahexaenoic Acid, work together as a team playing a structural and integral role in the composition of our cell membranes, our immune system, brain function, nerve function, fetal development, and cardiovascular and lung function. These two also work to reduce inflammation in joints, blood vessels, and skin.

The big issue with omega 3 fats is that the most bioavailable omega 3’s come from oily, cold water fish, or egg yolks.  Of course, vegetarians and vegans do not eat fish or seafood and must get their omega-3 fats from a plant-based source such as flax seed or chia seed. This type of omega 3 fat comes in the form of ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which is the plant-based version of omega 3 that must be converted in the body to the usable forms of DHA and EPA.

While it is possible for the body to convert the plant-based ALA into some amounts of EPA and DHA, research studies show that only a very small amount of ALA can actually be converted. One study shows only 2-10% of ALA can be converted, and many studies show even less at around 1%, or even less than 1%.

Since many vegetarians rely on grains, soy and vegetable oils in their diet, this actually increases their need for omega 3, because omega 6 fats (in grains, soy and vegetable oils) compete in the body with omega 3 fats. The more omega 6 fats in the diet, the more omega 3 fats are needed. On top of that, deficiencies of B vitamins, magnesium, and zinc—common deficiencies in vegetarians—inhibit this conversion even more. Add in other factors such as age, genetics, poor digestion, protein deficiencies, and other health conditions, and it makes the conversion even more difficult!

Diets deficient in omega 3’s, DHA and EPA have noticeable effects on aging. The skin looks drier, it lacks its normal elasticity, and is missing the natural oils that keep it soft and supple. Surface wrinkles appear and the skin will look rough, blotchy, bumpy and dry, and hair may end up looking dull, lifeless and brittle, along with a sprinkling of dandruff. Not a real pretty picture!

Lack of properly metabolized omega 3’s may also exacerbate acne, eczema and psoriasis as well. Low levels of DHA and EPA also contribute to arthritis, asthma, heart disease, hypertension, osteoporosis, depression/anxiety, and ADD, too.

One of the other vital fats often missing from vegetarians’ diets is saturated fat, found in butter, egg yolks, red meat, and also in coconut oil. Saturated fats play similarly significant roles in the body’s chemistry. These fats strengthen the immune system and are involved in inter-cellular communication which involves our immunity and ability to fight cancer, among other things. Saturated fats also play a vital role in helping cell membranes work properly, including the cell receptors for insulin, which protects against diabetes. Our lungs actually cannot function very well without saturated fats. Children raised on a diet that includes real butter and full-fat milk have been shown to have less incidents of asthma, ADD/ADHD and other behavioral problems, than children on a low fat diet.  Saturated fats are also necessary for testosterone production as well as estrogen and progesterone, so avoiding these fats will also deplete your essential sex hormones, which affect energy, fertility, mood and sex drive.

Saturated fats are most definitely required for nerves and the nervous system to function properly, and did you know that the majority of the brain is made up of saturated fats? That is why avoiding fatty acids can actually cause serious issues in your moods. It is theorized that many mental health issues such as bipolar, depression, OCD and schizophrenia have strong connections to a lack of essential fats.

One other important thing about saturated fats–saturated animal fats are an absolute necessity for utilization of the fat-soluble vitamins A, D , E, and K2. A great example of this is my good friend who was a strict vegan. She refused to eat fat, thinking it would make her fat. As a result, she developed a serious vitamin A deficiency and even though she was eating tons of fruit and veggies packed with the beta-carotene version of vitamin A, her body couldn’t use it!  Her skin actually turned a bright orange as all that beta carotene built up in her body, but without the necessary saturated fats, it was totally unusable!

If you have any of these ‘old age’ symptoms you most likely have a fatty acid deficiency instead:

• achy joints
• symptoms of ADD
• brittle, peeling nails
• dry, dull, hair
• cold intolerance symptoms
• constipation
• cracked skin on heels
• eczema, dry scaly skin
• excessive thirst
• gastrointestinal problems
• hypertension
• irregular bowel movements
• irritability
• low concentration/brain fog
• depression or anxiety
• learning disability
• lowered immunity
• low body weight
• poor memory
• poor wound healing
• weakness and lack of energy

One more comment on essential fatty acids, primarily omega 3’s—when you look at DNA strands of people who are aging more quickly than their younger counterparts, you will find that the telomeres, or the ends of the DNA strands on people who are aging faster are shorter and fraying. Guess what main dietary substance dramatically slows this fraying? You guessed it—omega 3 fatty acids!

2. AGE’s and aging from a diet high in carbohydrates consisting of grains (often highly refined), starchy carbohydrates and refined, ‘fake’ foods like artificial meat.

AGE’s are Advanced Glycation Endproducts. AGE’s can be either in the food you eat or formed within your body. AGE’s occur when sugar molecules attach to protein or fat molecules without an enzyme. AGE’s are a serious promoter of aging in the body, as well as initiating many chronic diseases. In fact AGE’s can be one of the biggest factors in the development of cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimers’.

AGE’s form a sticky plaque-like substance in the brain, nerve tissue, and the rest of the body. It is reported that when AGE’s are consumed, about 10-30% are absorbed into the body. The body’s ability to eliminate these once they are absorbed is very limited, meaning that once these gunky, gooey, nasty things get in human cells, it’s damage that cannot be undone.

AGE’s are responsible for wrinkly, sagging skin, damage to virtually every known organ system in the body. Simple, processed carbs break down into sugar in the body, which in turn breaks down collagen and elastin, creating wrinkly, sagging skin.

Advanced Glycation End products can come from two primary sources:

• From our diet (Exogenous AGE’s)
• Internally produced in the body (Endogenous AGE’s)

AGE’s have a direct tie to our blood sugar levels. A measurement of blood sugar over a period of time using the Hemoglobin A1c test will show that a diet high in carbohydrates (even ‘unrefined’ carbs) increases the HbA1c measure. Unfortunately, this is what vegans and vegetarians tend to concentrate on in their diets, or eat more of in order to fulfill their calorie needs since they’re avoiding animal-based foods.  Avoiding animal-based proteins means that you have to eat a diet high in grain, beans, and starchy carbohydrates to get adequate protein.

And what about those vegetarian ‘meat’ products and veggie burgers?  Well, here’s an ingredient list of one popular ‘fake’ meat—full of junk and refined carbs:

Water, wheat gluten, tofu, canola oil, natural flavors [including MSG], corn starch, white bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, lemon juice and seasonings.

Endogenous (or internally formed) AGE’s occur in the body from the sugar and carbohydrates from food. Since vegetarians typically eat a diet that is primarily carbohydrate-based, these carbs quickly turn into glucose (sugar) in the body and create glycation in the cells. People on diets with chronically elevated blood sugar are subject to the most damage from AGE’s—and unfortunately vegetarians are definitely in that group.  Certain types of sugars such as fructose, are much more likely (as much as 10x more likely) to glycate. Vegetarians eat more fruit than most people, often in excessive quantities.  Small amounts of fruit are healthy, but you CAN eat too much!

For optimal aging, your A1C levels (whether diabetic or not) should be less than 5%, which would mean keeping an average blood sugar level of about 90 mg/dl. While that seems fairly low by some conventional medical standards, this percentage is easily attainable if you eat a low-glycemic diet that contains healthy fats and protein to keep blood sugar stable.

3. Depleted collagen—One of the more obvious places you will see collagen deficiency is in the skin. Collagen helps give the skin resilience, so if eggs, dairy, fish, and meat are eliminated from the diet, you will see this deficiency every time you look in the mirror!

“A lot of people who eliminate meat and animal products are attempting to be healthier, but you really have to know how to eat right to make being a vegetarian work for you,” says Susan Blum, MD, MPH.

Aside from your actual age, the condition of your skin reflects your overall health and nutrition. “Being a vegan can be aging,” says Vargas, a famous New York dermatologist. “I see 27-year-old vegans who don’t have good skin elasticity. There’s no snap-back to their skin because they’re not getting enough protein and collagen.

Collagen is the new popular supplement—for very good reason.  Collagen is a very specific type of protein that is naturally produced in the body and used in connective tissues. It provides a scaffolding framework for skin, keeping it plump-looking and young. It is the primary ingredient in hair and nails, it keeps them strong and smooth, and a vital factor in joint health, being the necessary ingredient for bone cartilage, tendons and ligaments.

Collagen is vital to cell structure and has to be in the body in sufficient quantities to rebuild: hair, skin, nails, eyes, teeth, cartilage, bones, tendons, organs, arteries, blood vessels, hemoglobin, immune cells and the immune system. Collagen is responsible for 80% of all connective tissue and 75% percent of the skin!

However, internal collagen production slows down as we age, and it begins to accelerate somewhere in our mid to late 20’s. By age 40 or so, your body has already lost approximately 15% of its natural collagen stores. If you aren’t putting collagen back into your body, you will quickly use up any stores you have and become collagen-deficient, as is the case for vegans and vegetarians. Vegetarians often try to include pro-collagen (plant-based) sources for collagen, but without the correct synergistic nutrients, it goes unused in the body. The results include wrinkles, thinning, saggy skin, brittle hair and nails, insomnia, increased anxiety, joint aches and inflammation (arthritis), increased injuries due to tight and inflamed tendons and ligaments, and slow recovery from exercise, among others.

Other anti-aging benefits of collagen include improving gut integrity by enhancing digestive enzyme secretion, and restoring a healthy mucosal lining in the stomach. Gelatin also absorbs water and helps keep fluid in the digestive tract, preventing constipation and helping regularity.  Consuming collagen helps to heal a “leaky gut”, and unfortunately, vegans and vegetarians are prone to leaky gut by consuming excessive amounts of gut irritants from beans and grains.  This is another reason that eating a Paleo style Diet (avoiding grains and beans), can help to heal leaky gut, and improve overall digestive system health.

The traditional way to get gelatin and collagen is by eating bone broth, chicken feet, chicken skin (yes, pasture raised chicken skin IS actually good for you!), and gelatinous meats.  Unfortunately for vegetarians and vegans, it is pretty much impossible to get usable gelatin and collagen from a plant-based diet (sorry vegans…there’s just no other way around this one) — Gelatin and collagen is only found in animal foods that come from the body of an animal itself.

[Mike’s note:  By the way, if you’re looking to try some amazing tasting bars that are made with grass-fed collagen, try these!  They taste like cake batter or cookie dough in a way, and I love them!

Another way to easily add some beneficial anti-aging collagen protein to your daily plan is to add some grass-fed collagen protein to your coffee or tea every day… it’s a tasteless protein, so doesn’t change the flavor of your coffee at all…this is the grass-fed collagen that I personally use in my daily coffee.]

To close out this discussion—I realize that many people who are vegans or vegetarians have important philosophical or spiritual reasons for being vegetarian, and I respect that. But if you want to remain truly healthy and young-looking on this type of diet, it is absolutely vital that you supplement your diet with at least some essential nutrients either by taking supplements or allowing yourself to eat a few select animal products… These could include omega 3 fats & saturated fats from cold water fish, pasture-raised eggs, grass-fed butter and other dairy, animal-sourced supplemental gelatin, and avoiding grains, ‘fake’ meat, and refined processed starchy foods.

Vitamins K2, D3, and B12 are also extremely important for vegans and vegetarians to attempt to consume more of, either through supplements or at least eating “some” animal products on a regular basis.  Remember that organ meats are the MOST nutrient dense of all animal foods, so for a vegetarian that doesn’t want to consume a lot of animal products, the best bet is to eat a little bit of organ meats to obtain all the nutrients they need.  I recently found a duck liver sausage that was amazing, and is absolutely loaded with vitally important vitamins and minerals!

Our favorite website that my wife and I have found delicious organ meat sausages and other grass-fed meats is here.  We absolutely LOVE so many of their products and order often!

If you want to take your anti-aging nutrition to the next level, in order to look AND feel 10 years younger than your real age, make sure you have a copy of our best-selling book, The Top 101 Foods that FIGHT Aging

To your health and longevity!

PS — As a nutritionist, I will also say that vegetarianism CAN be done right…If a vegetarian chooses to eat at least some eggs, grass-fed dairy, and/or fish (eating fish and plants is called a pescatarian diet), they can prevent any deficiencies at all, and if they also keep refined grains, gluten, and inflammatory vegetable oils to a minimum (instead of being a substitute to replace the lack of calories from meat), then they CAN certainly have incredible health on a vegetarian diet.  [Note that vegans are always going to have deficiencies if they don’t at least have some eggs, dairy, or fish.]  Vegetarians may still end up low in dietary collagen if they only eat eggs, dairy and/or fish, but overall, they can prevent deficiencies and still have great health and longevity.

References

Michael Eades, MD, “Vegetarians AGE faster”,

Sally Fallon Morell, “Know your Fats Introduction”, Weston A Price Foundation, Feb 2009. http://www.westonaprice.org/health-topics/know-your-fats-introduction/#sthash.ZbsmGLIs.dpuf

Swanson, Block and Mousa, “Advances in Nutrition, Omega-3 Fatty Acids EPA and DHA: Health Benefits Throughout Life”. Adv Nutr January 2012 Adv Nutr vol. 3: 1-7, 2012

Šebeková, Krajčovičová-Kudláčková, Schinzel, Faist, Klvanová and Heidland, “Plasma levels of advanced glycation end products in healthy, long-term vegetarians and subjects on a western mixed diet. European Journal of Nutrition, Dec 2001, vol. 40:6, 275-281.

About The Watchdog

Mike Geary has been a Certified Nutrition Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer for over 15 years now. He has been studying nutrition and exercise for almost 25 years, ever since being a young teenager. Mike is originally from Pennsylvania, but has fallen in love with mountain life and now resides in the picturesque mountains of Utah. Mike is an avid adventurist and when he’s not spending his time skiing, mountain biking, hiking, or paddleboarding on the lake, he has enjoyed skydiving, whitewater rafting, piloting an Italian fighter plane (seriously), scuba diving, heli-skiing, and traveling all around the world, enjoying learning about different cultures. At the age of 40, Mike now feels healthier, stronger, and more energetic than when he was 20... All because of a healthy lifestyle and great nutrition!

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12 comments

  1. There is considerable good sense here but maybe it is extreme. There are completed or ongoing, interesting studies of members of the Seventh-Day Adventists. Evaluations point to reduced rates for many types of cancers as well as benefits for heart disease. This church has members who are vegetarians, vegans and consumers of meat and those not eating meat show the health advantages over those who do consume meat. On account of more uniformity (compared to the huge spectrum of Americans in general) of life style results for this group of people is easies to interpret making the differences in diet, etc. easier to sort out. If this reference survives the rules for posting here I recommend reading this (and other references on the subject.)

    https://news.adventist.org/en/all-commentaries/commentary/go/-/adventist-health-studies-indicate-a-long-healthy-life-is-no-accident/

    One important conclusion is strong evidence that vegetarians who do it right live LONGER and do not suffer the negative effects described by Cat Ebeling and Mike Geary. One criterion is being careful to do it right. Meat certainly makes it easier with certain absolutely vital nutrients and learning what must be done is very strongly recommended.

    • Hi Robert. We appreciate your comment, and you bring up a few good points. However, it’s important to realize that the good health and longevity displayed by Adventists may have nothing to do their vegetarian diet…many experts believe it’s the overall healthy lifestyle, exercise, stress management, and strong social bonds of the Adventists that are bigger factors in their health and longevity, and not necessarily what % of animal vs plant matter that they eat. There are examples of tribes in Africa that eat mostly animal-based foods and very little plants at all, and they display extremely good health with no degenerative disease at all. The % of plants vs animals doesn’t matter as much as the quality of food overall (factory farm raised animals are simply not healthy, but wild game or pasture-raised meat is healthy), overall nutrient density, and overall lifestyle (exercise, stress, and social bonds)…

      As a nutritionist, I will also say that vegetarianism CAN be done right…If a vegetarian chooses to eat some eggs, grass-fed dairy, and/or fish, they can prevent any deficiencies at all (unlike a vegan, which almost always has deficiencies), and if a vegetarian also keeps refined grains and gluten to a minimum (instead of being a substitute for animal products), then they can certainly have incredible health on a vegetarian diet. They may still end up low in dietary collagen if they only eat eggs, dairy and/or fish (pescatarian diet), but overall, they can prevent deficiencies and have amazing health and longevity.

      Another good point to make is that usually what happens when an average person eating a modern western fast food diet switches to a vegetarian diet, they see improved health and weight loss. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because you’re comparing a nutrient-poor fast food diet vs a diet that basically eliminates fast food, trans fats, and excess calories. However, they could have had equally good results, if not better, if they just ate a healthy omnivorous diet with a good blend of healthy plants and animal foods, controlled their calories, and maxed out their micro-nutrients. It wasn’t the vegetarian diet that was the main reason for their improved health…it was that they were no longer on a “junk food diet”.

      My good friend Mark Sisson has an awesome article that I’ll copy below with 17 really important tips for vegetarians and vegans to maintain best health:
      http://www.marksdailyapple.com/17-primal-tips-for-vegans-and-vegetarians/#axzz4Ba2U0JXV

      • Hi,Robert.Thanks for the article.I kind of considered that myself,re the deficiencies and vegans especially eating grains.

        I have gone vegetarian for 3 weeks and unfortunately slipped up today and has some chicken.

        I agree with what you are saying that someone on a fast food diet is going to look better on a vegetarian diet,but all things being equal someone on a healthy diet with meat could do as well than someone on a healthy diet with no meat.

        Stats are pointed out about meat causing cancer but I think that is due to people eating too much or processed meat.

        I don’t eat fish,but I do take algae oil – which fish get omega 3 from – as well as organic eggs, coconut oil and am also going to take grass fed ghee,so do you think that should be okay? I have been told before I look younger anyway.

  2. Surely if you are saying a veggie/vegan diet can be done right if your willing to eat a certain amount of animal products then you are contradicting yourself… Especially for a vegan diet… Veggies yes could choose grass fed butters & raw milk, but a vegan diet is not going to do this… & if they chose to then they would no longer be following a veggie/vegan diet.
    There are also many dr’s & other scientific studies that would say you are wrong.
    It’s so hard to decide how to live your life when you constantly have people contradicting what each other are saying!

    • Hayley I agree that it’s very difficult. There are so many ways to look at it, so many studies that contradict each other. But there are some things that are certain: how we live our lives, e.g. stress management, exercise and social bonds are also absolutely vital area’s to look at. For example take all the calcium you want, but if you aren’t load bearing your body won’t absorb it. Then there’s individuality. I personally have a gene mutation, which reduces, among many other things, my ability to make creatine. It’s not a supplement to take long term, so basically I have to eat animal products. I know How To do vegetarian right, but it doesn’t matter my health and well-being declines rapidly without red meat, especially. So I say listen to your body, run a control group of one. If you’re not getting sick, you have energy, you feel good and are not cold intolerant etc then you’re doing the right thing. But if you’re getting sick, having hormonal issues, fatigue, brain fog – things need to change.

  3. I read this article to my husband we both were vegetarian, while i find the article helpful he on the other hand finds it contradictory, because it’s entitled “3 Reasons Vegetarians Can Age Faster” which is counter productive and miss leading, that is because vegetarians already eat dairy products, eggs and fish. we’d like to know why was it untitled that way instead of pointing the right problem which is veganism according to you.

  4. Perhaps you should watch this video, since it shows that eating a raw-vegan diet is THE answer when it comes to ageing.

  5. And here are two amazing women who look like the fountain of youth is theirs…and they eat totally raw vegan diets:

  6. With your ‘healthy animal product’ diet you are smuggling saturated fats and cholesterol which will lead to blood vessel diseases.

    Dr Gregor has shown through solid research that plant based diets can reverse this.

    Omega 3 can be attained with Algae supplements.

  7. Then why do vegans often look so young? I’m 36 and vegan and still getting asked for ID. I think anyone’s skin can look old if they are not eating enough of the right nutrition, but that would mainly be for people who eat meat. If a vegan has deficiencies it’s because they are not eating enough of the right stuff. I had a check recently and I have no deficiencies. Apart from anything else studies have show vegans live longer.

  8. B12 is not produced by animal but by bacteria. Vitamin K is in plants such as kale

  9. finally an answer!People will deny and show two oldpeople taht look great.Like the women above who is also black wich contribues for her looks,but overall I see enumerous emacieted vegans.They do not look healthy.And some of the raw vegan clrealy have something going with their tyroid.I found this searching collagne deficience

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