Vegetarians, on average, weigh less and have lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure than meat eaters. Studies have found that they’re also at lower risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, some cancers (notably colorectal cancer), and other conditions. Now a large new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, from Oxford University, has confirmed that being a vegetarian is good for the heart.
It included nearly 45,000 people in England and Scotland who were recruited into the EPIC-Oxford study between 1993 and 1999, at which time they reported their food intake over the past year. About one-third were vegetarians—simply meaning they ate no meat or fish; they may have eaten dairy and eggs.
Over an average of 12 years, the vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to be hospitalized with or die from a heart attack than meat eaters. Most of the reduced risk was due to their lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, which the researchers attributed to their higher intake of polyunsaturated fats (predominantly found in plant foods) and lower intake of saturated fats (predominantly found in animal products).
Of course, people who follow a vegetarian diet often have other healthy habits that could be responsible for at least some of the heart benefits. To address that problem, the researchers adjusted the data for smoking, alcohol, physical activity and other factors that influence the risk of heart disease—but it is impossible to control for them all.
Still, a notable strength of the study was the large number of vegetarians, which allowed for a “reasonably precise estimate” of the association between vegetarianism and heart attack risk, the researchers concluded. The study was not designed, however, to examine whether excluding all animal foods—that is, dairy and eggs, too—is even more heart-healthy, as proponents of vegan diets claim.