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Does Going Vegetarian Cut Heart Attack Risk?


A large, new British study of vegetarians in the U.K. found that a meatless, fishless diet cut the risk of being hospitalized or dying from heart disease by a third - news that got a lot of publicity in this country last week.

The study tracked nearly 45,000 people living in England and Scotland, of which about a third indicated they were vegetarians and ate no meat or fish.

After about 10 years of follow-up, researchers found that the vegetarians had a 32 percent lower chance of being hospitalized or dying from heart disease compared with the nonvegetarians. The vegetarians also had lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels than their carnivore counterparts.

Not to rain on the veggie parade, but there are some "yeah, but ..." considerations to keep in mind about this study. First, only a tiny 2.4 percent, or 1,066, of the study participants even developed heart disease and just 169 died from it. That means that the vegetarians' risk of heart disease was about 1.7 percent - lower than that of the meat eaters, though not overwhelmingly so.

Also, the U.K. participants were already healthier than the average American. Stephen Green, M.D., associate chairman of the department of cardiology at North Shore University Hospital, in Manhasset, N.Y., who examined the study data, told HealthDay News: "These people are much thinner than Americans, smoke less and are more active."

In addition, the study didn't look at exactly what U.K. vegetarians eat, so we don't know how this compares with a typical American vegetarian diet. Do the Brits and Scots eat more veggies and grains, while Americans favor more cheese and tofu? And finally, the study finds only an association between a meatless diet and better heart health, not a direct cause and effect.

Still, the study results echo previous research that suggests that cutting back on animal fat can be beneficial to your health. Plus, researchers noted that having such a large proportion of vegetarians to study enabled a more precise comparison between them and nonvegetarians.

Previous studies have suggested that nonmeat eaters have fewer heart problems, but it wasn't clear if vegetarians tend to have healthier lifestyles in general, including smoking less and exercising more, which could have affected the results.

Researchers involved in this study still can't say for sure that lifestyle differences didn't play a role, but the large subject pool means "we're able to be slightly more certain that it is something that's in the vegetarian diet that's causing vegetarians to have a lower risk of heart disease," lead researcher Francesca Crowe, Ph.D., of the University of Oxford, told Reuters.

Crowe said the difference in cholesterol levels between meat eaters and vegetarians is probably partly due to the lack of red meat in vegetarians' diets. The extra fruits and vegetables and higher fiber in a nonmeat diet could also play a role, she told Reuters.

If you can't see yourself giving up meat entirely, Crowe said just scaling back on foods containing saturated fat - like butter, ice cream, cheese and meat - can make a difference.

The study was published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Photo:  YoAmes /flickr



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