A new study from the University of Oxford has found that adopting a vegetarian diet could reduce the risk of heart disease by a third. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in developed countries, including the United States, but it is largely preventable with lifestyle changes such as adopting a healthier diet and increasing physical activity.
Study authors Francesca Crowe and Tim Key analyzed data from 45,000 volunteers (34% were vegetarian) from England and Scotland recruited in the 1990’s through the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Oxford study and tracked until 2009. The study took into account many factors, including age, smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity, educational level and socioeconomic background.
Overwhelmingly, those who identified with being vegetarian had lower blood pressure, cholesterol levels and body mass index (BMI) than those who ate meat and fish. The team found a 32% lower risk of hospitalization or death from cardiovascular disease among the non-meat-eaters.
The team also noticed a lower incidence of diabetes.
In general, past studies have found that vegetarians eat less saturated fat and cholesterol and more beneficial nutrients such as complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, magnesium, folic acid, vitamins C and E, carotenoids and other phytochemicals.
Well-balanced and planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for all stages of the lifecycle, including children, adolescents, pregnant and lactating women, the elderly and even competitive athletes. In addition to lowering the risk of heart disease, vegetarians also have the advantage of lower risks of some types of cancer, osteoporosis, renal disease, diverticular disease, gallstones, and rheumatoid arthritis.
The CDC lists poor nutrition among the four most common causes of chronic disease which accounts for 7 out of 10 deaths among Americans each year. In 2010 the total costs of cardiovascular diseases in the United States were estimated to be $444 billion. Treatment for these diseases accounts for about $1 of every $6 spent on healthcare in this country.
The American Dietetic Association offers the following tips on moving toward a vegetarian diet:
• Replace meat with a plant protein, such as soy or dried beans.
• Choose whole-grain products (e.g. whole wheat bread, brown rice, or whole-grain cereals instead of refined or white grains.
• Remember to eat a wide variety of foods to ensure you meet your needs for all of the essential nutrients.
• To prevent eating too much saturated fat, if you eat dairy products, choose non-fat or low-fat varieties. Use eggs in moderation.
• Limit intake of sweets and other high sugar foods and beverages (such as sodas).
• Use a regular source of vitamin B-12, and if sunlight exposure is limited, of vitamin D.
Francesca L Crowe, Paul N Appleby, Ruth C Travis, and Timothy J Key. Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians: results from the EPIC-Oxford cohort study.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition January 30, 2013, doi: 10.3945/ajcn.112.044073
Leitzmann C. Vegetarian diets: what are the advantages? Forum Nutr. 2005;(57):147-56.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The American Dietetic Association