Published on Wednesday in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the analysis looked at almost 45,000 volunteers from England and Scotland, 34 per cent of whom were vegetarian. Factors such as age, alcohol intake, educational level, physical activity, smoking and socioeconomic background were taken into consideration, and having such an unusually large proportion of vegetarian participants – which is rare in studies of this kind – allowed the researchers to make more precise estimates of the two groups.
More than 65,000 people died from coronary heart disease in 2010 in England – more than for any other disease – according to the British Heart Foundation. The main forms of the disease are heart attack and angina. The new findings suggest that a meat-free diet could significantly reduce people’s risk of heart problems such as these.
“The results clearly show that the risk of heart disease in vegetarians is about a third lower than in comparable non-vegetarians,” said Professor Tim Key, co-author of the study and deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford.
The vegetarians in the study had lower blood pressures and cholesterol levels than the non-vegetarians and this is thought to be the main reason behind their reduced risk of heart disease.
Former US president Bill Clinton, who has a family history of heart disease and struggled with weight for years, developed heart disease and underwent coronary bypass surgery in 2004. After a second heart incident in 2010 he then switched to a plant-based diet and credited this for saving his life.
Funded by Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council, and carried out by the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, the new study is the largest in the UK to date comparing rates of heart disease between vegetarians and meat eaters.