You don’t have to become a vegetarian to protect your heart, but recent results from a large study in the UK suggest that eating more like a vegetarian could help. It’s the latest to show that a vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, but unusual in looking specifically at the combined outcomes of both fatal and nonfatal heart disease.
“These data are consistent with what we having been advocating for a long time—eat less saturated fat and emphasize vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes in the diet,” says Alice H Lichtenstein, DSc, director of Tufts’ HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory. “Our major source of saturated fat is animal fat, meat and dairy products. If someone switches to a vegetarian diet, meat is eliminated, along with the saturated fat. If they also eliminate dairy products, so goes the other major source of saturated fat. Some vegetarians do not eliminate dairy products but choose fat-free or low-fat dairy products, which results in the same benefit.”
In the new study, Francesca Crowe, PhD, of Oxford University, and colleagues examined data on 44,561 participants in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer (EPIC)-Oxford study in England and Scotland. Among that study population, 34% indicated they were vegetarians, defined as eating no meat or fish.
Crowe and colleagues looked at both hospital admissions and deaths attributed to ischemic heart disease, which is characterized by reduced blood supply to the heart muscle, usually due to coronary artery disease. During an average follow-up period of 11.6 years, they identified 1,235 cases of hospitalization and 169 deaths.
NO MEAT, TWO-THIRDS THE RISK: Overall, vegetarians were 32% less likely to suffer ischemic heart disease than nonvegetarians in the study population. That difference remained even after adjusting for factors such as age, smoking and alcohol use, physical activity level, education and contraceptive or hormone therapy. Vegetarians did tend to have lower body mass index (BMI) at the start of the study, and when the results were adjusted for BMI the risk difference dropped slightly to 28%.
The advantage in lower heart disease risk was seen among recent as well as long-term vegetarians. Those who had been vegetarians for less than five years were at 30% lower risk, scarcely different from the 32% lower risk for long-term vegetarians.
Vegetarians were likely at reduced heart risk because of their lower levels of non-HDL cholesterol (including LDL) and lower systolic blood pressure (a difference of 3.3 mm Hg), the researchers wrote in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.