Vegetarians a third less likely to suffer heart disease, UK study shows

Vegetarians are a third less likely to develop cardiovascular disease than those who eat meat and fish, a longtime study of thousands show

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 February, 2013, 3:57am

Vegetarians were 32 per cent less likely to be admitted to hospital or die from heart disease than people who ate meat and fish, scientists at Oxford University reported.

The researchers followed nearly 45,000 adults, a third of them vegetarians, for an average of 11 and a half years and accounted for factors such as their age, whether they smoked, alcohol consumption, physical activity, education and socio-economic background, according to the study published on Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In the 50 to 70 age group, 6.8 per cent of study participants who ate meat or fish were sent to hospital or died from heart disease, compared to 4.6 per cent of vegetarians.

The study, dubbed the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), is the largest of its kind in Britain.

"Probably most of the difference is accounted for by the fact that the vegetarians had lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure," said Francesca Crowe, one of the authors of the study and a nutritional epidemiologist at Oxford. "Diet is an important determinant of heart disease."

Ninety-seven per cent of the participants were Caucasian, said Crowe, but there was no difference in the results for different ethnic groups. "There is no particular reason why it would not be generalisable to vegetarians in other population groups," she said.

Cardiovascular disease is the biggest cause of death in developed countries and accounted for an estimated 17.3 million deaths in 2008 worldwide, including 6.2 million deaths from strokes, according to the World Health Organisation.

The Oxford study reinforces previous research that has concluded a healthy diet can reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of diabetes.

Another study of more than 31,000 people who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or diabetes, published in the journal Circulation in December, found that those who ate a diet that favoured fish, vegetables, fruit, beans and nuts over meats and eggs were 35 per cent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.

Plant-based diets have long been advocated by doctors including Dean Ornish, a California-based cardiologist, and Caldwell Esselstyn, a retired surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who have argued the benefits of vegetarian diets in their books.

Former United States President Bill Clinton, who had heart disease and underwent coronary bypass surgery in 2004, cited both doctors as influences after he switched to a plant-based diet.

"When these patients will fully commit to plant-based nutrition, they can not only halt but they can arrest and on occasion there will be significant evidence of disease reversal," Esselstyn, a vegetarian for 29 years, said.

The Oxford study was funded by Cancer Research UK and Britain's Medical Research Council and conducted by the university's Cancer Epidemiology Unit.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse