Around 5% of the UK’s population is vegetarian and although there are a number of reasons why someone may avoid meat and fish, choosing to do so for health reasons is popular. While some remain sceptical over whether a vegetarian diet is indeed healthier, a new study provides extra evidence that being vegetarian appears reduces the risk of developing heart disease; this is of particular interest, as diseases of the circulation are the leading cause of death in this country.
Researchers at the University of Oxford recruited almost 45,000 people to take part in the study and included meat eaters, as well as those choosing a vegetarian or vegan diet. At the start of the research, information was collected about their food choices and then this was repeated after five years; at the second occasion when data was collected, other factors such as weight, smoking status, exercise levels, blood pressure and cholesterol that can influence whether you are more likely to develop heart disease were recorded. Later, records from hospitals and national audits along with death certificates were used to ascertain if those taking part in the study had developed or died from heart disease. Statistical analysis was then used to compare the chance of developing or dying from heart disease between vegetarians and those who include meat or fish in their diet.
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Of the participants 34% were vegetarians and overall they were 32% less likely to develop heart disease during the study. Although adjusting for other factors did lessen being vegetarian’s impact on heart disease risk, they were still significantly less likely to experience problems such as angina or a heart attack than meat.
The significantly lower risk of heart disease amongst vegetarians suggest that the avoidance of meat may benefit the heart, which is likely due to its positive effect on other known risk factors such as cholesterol level and blood pressure. However, the study actively recruited vegetarians to participate and people who choose to take part in health research are usually more conscious of their lifestyle choices, so are more likely to be in good health; the results may therefore not be representative of vegetarians as a whole. Additionally, measurement of cholesterol was not compulsory, with under half those taking up the offer, so there is insufficient information to help draw a conclusion as to why vegetarians have lower rates of heart disease. Further research is therefore needed to confirm its findings.