Eat yourself healthy ... a vegetarian diet can reduce the risk of heart disease. Photo: Rohan Thomson
Vegetarians are 32 per cent less likely to be hospitalised or die from heart disease than people who eat meat and fish, scientists at England's Oxford University say.
The researchers followed almost 45,000 adults, one-third of them vegetarians, for an average of 11.5 years and accounted for factors such as their age, whether they smoked, alcohol consumption, physical activity, education and socio-economic background, according to the study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"Probably most of the difference is accounted for by the fact that the vegetarians had lower cholesterol and lower blood pressure," Francesca Crowe, one of the authors of the study and a nutritional epidemiologist at Oxford, said. "Diet is an important determinant of heart disease."
Cardiovascular disease is the biggest cause of death in developed countries and accounted for an estimated 17.3 million deaths in 2008 worldwide, including 6.2 million deaths from strokes, according to the World Health Organisation.
The Oxford study reinforces previous research that has concluded a healthy diet can reduce heart disease by lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and the risk of diabetes. Another study of more than 31,000 people who had been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease or diabetes, published in the journal Circulation in December, found that those who ate a diet that favoured fish, vegetables, fruit, beans and nuts over meats and eggs were 35 per cent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Plant-based diets have long been advocated by doctors including Dean Ornish, a California-based cardiologist, and Caldwell B. Esselstyn, a retired surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, who have argued the benefits of vegetarian diets in their books.
Former US president Bill Clinton cited both doctors as influences after he switched to a plant-based diet. Mr Clinton, who became known for consuming hamburgers while president, developed heart disease and underwent coronary bypass surgery in 2004.
"When these patients will fully commit to plant-based nutrition, they can not only halt but they can arrest and on occasion there will be significant evidence of disease reversal," Dr Esselstyn, a vegetarian for 29 years, said in a telephone interview.
"It's getting to the point where it will be unconscionable for patients with cardiovascular disease not to be informed that this option exists," he said.
The Oxford study was funded by Cancer Research UK and the UK's Medical Research Council and conducted by the university's Cancer Epidemiology Unit.