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Greens give hearts a boost

Being vegetarian reduces the risk of death or hospital admission from heart disease by almost a third, a major UK study has shown.

Choosing the veggie option on the menu is not a shortcut to a healthy heart... There are still plenty of foods suitable for vegeterians that are high in saturated fat and salt

Avoiding meat and fish was associated with significantly better heart health among almost 45,000 British adults.

In total 34 per cent of participants were vegetarian, the vast majority of whom were women.

Over an average follow-up period of 11.6 years, scientists recorded 1,066 hospital admissions due to heart disease, and 169 deaths.

Vegetarians were 32 per cent less likely to be included in these figures than non-vegetarians. This was after adjusting for a wide range of factors that could have influenced the result, such as age, sex, physical activity, smoking, alcohol consumption, education and social background. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, is the largest to be conducted in the UK looking at the impact of vegetarianism on heart disease.

Co-author Tim Key, deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, said: “The results clearly show that the risk of heart disease in vegetarians is about a third lower than in comparable non-vegetarians.”

The main reason for the difference is thought to be the effect of a low-fat vegetarian diet on cholesterol and blood pressure.

Vegetarians had lower levels of harmful cholesterol in their blood than meat and fish eaters, and reduced systolic, or maximum, blood pressure.

In addition vegetarians tended to be slimmer than non-vegetarians, with a lower body mass index, and they were less likely to be affected by diabetes. Between the ages of 50 and 70, the chances of dying or becoming seriously ill with heart disease were 6.8 per cent for non-vegetarians and 4.6 per cent for vegetarians.

The scientists focused on ischaemic heart disease (ISD), which is caused by blocked arteries depriving the heart muscle of blood.

The English and Scottish volunteers were enrolled into the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (Epic), a 10-nation study of diet, lifestyle and chronic disease.

Two-thirds of the vegetarians had followed their diet for five years or more. On average, they consumed larger amounts of cheese, fruit, vegetables and wholegrains than non-vegetarians, and less milk.

Dietician Tracy Parker, from the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “This research reminds us that we should try to eat a balanced and varied diet – whether this includes meat or not.

“But remember, choosing the veggie option on the menu is not a shortcut to a healthy heart. After all, there are still plenty of foods suitable for vegetarians that are high in saturated fat and salt.

“If you’re thinking of switching to a vegetarian diet, make sure you plan your meals carefully so that you replace any lost vitamins and minerals, such as iron, that you would normally get from meat.”

Previous results from the Epic study published in 2009 showed that vegetarians had lowerrates of cancer overall than non-vegetarians.

However, the incidence of bowel cancer was higher in vegetarians than in meat eaters.

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