The results of a new Oxford study on the effects of a meat-free diet on heart health won’t come as a surprise to vegetarians or vegans but might give meat eaters a reason to consider a diet change that could help them live longer and also enjoy their lives more.
The Worldwatch Institute reported in October that global meat consumption was dramatically slumping. The U.S. Cattle and Beef Industry statistics show that beef consumption in the United States has fallen from 28.1 billion pounds per year in 2007 to 25.6 billion pounds in 2011. The latest USDA report predicts that in 2013 Americans will eat a half-billion fewer chickens and 400,000 fewer cows compared to 2006, as well as 12 million fewer pigs compared to 2007, and 22 million fewer turkeys than in 2008.
The Counting Animals’ study suggests that 70 percent of the waning beef-consumption and 93 percent of the chicken-consumption decline is due to the increased awareness and reduced desire to eat animals by a generation knowledgeable about the health risks and appalled at the cruelty of factory farming and mass animal-slaughter operations. (See: Vegan Influence? Meat Consumption Slumps, Food-Animal Veterinarians Decline)
Now a new study led by Dr. Francesca Crowe at the University at Oxford and just published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has confirmed that, as a group, people who maintain a diet free of meat and fish are one-third less likely to be hospitalized or die from heart disease.
"If people want to reduce their risk of heart disease by changing their diet, one way of doing that is to follow a vegetarian diet," Dr. Crowe recently told Genevra Pittman of Reuters Health.
However, she added, you don't have to cut out meat altogether - just scaling back on saturated fat can make a difference. Not surprisingly, among the foods that are major offenders are butter, ice cream, cheeses and meats, because all typically contain high levels of saturated fat.
The Oxford study tracked almost 45,000 people in Scotland and England, with participants initially providing a detailed report of their dietary habits, lifestyle and general health in the 1990’s.
Dr. Crowe states that at that time about one-third reported that they ate a strictly vegetarian diet, without meat or fish. Over the next dozen years, 1,066 of those in the study group were hospitalized for heart disease, including heart attacks, and 169 actually died of heart-related conditions, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The research team confirmed that vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to develop heart disease than carnivores, taking into consideration the participants' ages, exercise habits and other health measures. They attribute the lower heart risk primarily to lower cholesterol and blood pressure among vegetarians in the study.
The researchers admit that lifestyle differences between vegetarians and meat eaters that could also factor into the disparity in heart risks, and body weight can also be an issue. When weight was factored in, the effect dropped slightly to 28 percent.
Studies which suggest that non-meat eaters have fewer heart problems are not new; however, the researchers stated that until now it wasn't clear if other lifestyle differences, including exercise and smoking habits, might also play into that.
“Now, we're able to be slightly more certain that it is something that's in the vegetarian diet that's causing vegetarians to have a lower risk of heart disease," said Dr. Crowe in the Reuters Health report.
Meat eaters had an average total cholesterol of 222 mg/dL (desirable level is no higher than 200 mg/dL) and a systolic blood pressure--the top number in a blood pressure reading--of 134 mm Hg, compared to 203 mg/dL total cholesterol and 131 mm Hg systolic blood pressure among vegetarians. Diastolic blood pressure--the bottom number--was similar in both groups, the researchers reported.
The difference in cholesterol levels between meat eaters and vegetarians was equivalent to about half the benefit someone would see by taking a statin; such as, Lipitor, Crestor, etc.
Still, Dr. Crowe noted, the researchers couldn't prove there were no unmeasured lifestyle differences between vegetarians and meat eaters that could help explain the disparity in heart risks.
But the healthy-heart effect is probably at least partly due to the lack of red meat--especially meat high in saturated fat--in vegetarians' diets, she added. The extra fruits and vegetables and higher fiber in a non-meat diet could also play a role.
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http://bit.ly/YGvv40 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, online January 30, 2013 .