Researchers from the University of Oxford in England found that compared with people who eat meat and fish, vegetarians were 32% less likely to be hospitalized for or die from ischemic heart disease, heart problems resulting from the narrowing or blockage of blood vessels that supply the heart. The findings appear today in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The research involved 44 561 men and women living in England and Scotland enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition—Oxford study, about one-third of whom were consuming a vegetarian diet at the beginning of the study. The study participants were recruited between 1993 and 1999 and followed up into 2009.
At follow-up, 169 individuals had died from ischemic heart disease. An additional 1066 were diagnosed with ischemic heart disease in the hospital, specifically angina pectoris (chest pain resulting from ischemia, 27%), acute heart attack (21%), or chronic ischemic heart disease (50%). Using the absolute rates of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease, the probability of having the condition among study enrollees aged 50 to 70 years was 6.8% for nonvegetarians and 4.6% for vegetarians. Such a difference means that 1 additional heart disease event occurred per 45 nonvegetarians compared with an equal number of vegetarians.
Lower cholesterol levels and healthier blood pressure levels among vegetarians compared with nonvegetarians were likely factors in the lower rates of heart disease hospitalizations and deaths among the vegetarians, the researchers suggested.
Total average cholesterol levels were 203 mg/dL and average blood pressure was 131/79 mm Hg in vegetarians vs 223 mg/dL and 134/80 mm Hg in nonvegetarians. “Most of the difference in risk is probably caused by effects on cholesterol and blood pressure and shows the important role of diet in the prevention of heart disease,” said lead author Francesca Crowe, PhD, of Oxford’s cancer epidemiology unit, in a release.