Adopting a vegetarian type diet can have a dramatic effect on one’s heart and overall health, new research suggests. The UK based study that included nearly 45 000 people found vegetarians had a 32 percent less chance of dying or needing hospital treatment as a result of heart disease.
Researchers at the University of Oxford analyzed data from over a course of 11 years. 169 people died of heart disease and 1,066 needed hospital treatment from the group of 15 100 vegetarians and 29 400 meat-eaters.
The key life-saving effects were thought to be associated with lower cholesterol, blood pressure and body weight. The purpose of the study was not to promote vegetarianism but show the powerful impact that diet has on one’s health.
Heart disease and other cardiovascular diseases (CVDs) are major preventable diseases that claim more than 17.3 million lives per year according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The study revealed that the foods that are frequently consumed in vegetarian diets (fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes) can reduce a person's risk for diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, and control body mass index and waist size as well. Other lifestyle interventions that are known to combat CVDs include improved physical activity levels and the cessation of tobacco and alcohol.
According to the largest study of vegetarians and vegans to date, those eating plant-based diets appear to have a significantly longer life expectancy as well. Vegetarians have been found to live on average nearly eight years longer than meat-eaters, which is similar to the gap between smokers and nonsmokers.
A plant-based diet has also been shown to help prevent, treat and even reverse type 2 diabetes. On average, vegetarians were 13.6 kgs (30 pounds) lighter than meat-eaters in the study. Vegetarians were also found to be more physically active and less likely to use tobacco products.
Becoming a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian is no easy task. It takes dedicated meal planning to replace lost vitamins and minerals, such as iron, that you get from meat. Being vegetarian does not automatically constitute a healthy heart as many foods can still have high amounts of salt and artificial preservatives.
What is a vegetarian diet?
A vegetarian diet is really a misnomer as there is no single eating pattern or type of vegetarianism. A vegan or total vegetarian only eats fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and legumes. Legumes are a wide variety of dried beans and peas.
A lactovegetarian eats vegan foods plus cheese and other dairy products. If one wants to consume eggs they are called an ovo-lactovegetarian. Another combination is semi-vegetarianism. This means that one does not eat red meat but does eat chicken, fish, dairy and eggs.
Can being vegetarian be unhealthy?
Most vegetarian diets are low or devoid of meat products that contain many essential nutrients. However, with careful planning a vegetarian diet can be clearly healthy and nutritionally sound. They are especially low in total and bad fats that are found in many saturated fats and cholesterol.
A vegetarian diet can be unhealthy if it contains too many calories, unhealthy fats or does not have a variety of foods that will provide important nutrients, vitamins and minerals. Many new vegetarians do no eat a variety of food or they do not consume enough calories to meet energy needs.
A common misperception is that you cannot get enough protein from a plant-based diet. This is untrue as you can get enough essential and non-essential amino acids from plant proteins. Whole grains, vegetables, seeds, nuts and legumes all contain both essential and non-essential amino acids.
Historically, vegetarians have replaced animal protein with soy protein. Soy proteins have been scrutinized in the recent past as they have been found to be neurotoxic if consumed in large quantities. The neurotoxicity link is not completely understood but is a common cause of headaches and other conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Vegetarian nutrient needs
Vegetarians have a greater risk of iron deficiency and anemia than meat-eaters. Red meat, liver and egg yolks are the richest sources of iron in one’s diet. One’s diet must include dried beans, spinach, dried fruits and enriched products. Nutritional supplements are also widely available.
Vitamin B-12 is one of the greatest challenges to get in a vegetarian diet. Vitamin B-12 is only found in animal products. Vegans are at greatest risk as they consume no meat but the other types should have minimal complication. The vitamin is a common fortified nutrient to help ensure all people will get adequate amounts.
Vitamin D is a critical nutrient that acts much like a hormone throughout the body. It is required for the absorption of calcium and plays an integral role in the strength of one’s bones, immune system and overall health.
Vitamin D is naturally produced when one is exposed to the ultraviolet light in sunlight. Vegetarians may need to spend additional time in the sun to get sufficient amounts. Vitamin D3 supplements are widely available as well.
Dark, green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale are good sources of plant-based calcium. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and many legumes provide similar benefits. Numerous studies demonstrate how vegetarians absorb and retain more calcium from plant-based foods than meat-eaters do.
Zinc is a mineral that is critical for growth and development. Vegans can get adequate amounts of zinc from whole grains, nuts and many legumes. A semi-vegetarian can get zinc from shellfish as they are one of the best sources.
Being vegetarian does not mean one should indulge in sweets as a source of energy. Sugar-based foods are very low in actual nutrients and very high in calories. They are called “empty calories” as they provide no nutritional value.
Sugar is a leading cause of inflammation in the body as well. Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, cancer and weight loss resistance is strongly linked to the amount of inflammation in the body. Eating a plant-based diet that is low in processed sugar is one of the strongest anti-inflammatory diets available.
The following statistics are important if you’re considering a plant-based, vegetarian diet. Vegans are on average 13.6 kgs lighter in overall weight and five units lighter on the body mass index (BMI) scale. Vegetarians are less insulin resistant and individuals can effectively manage and possibly even reverse type 2 diabetes.
A vegetarian diet encourages numerous factors that boost one’s overall health. Long-term, sustained weight loss and weight management will allow one to exercise more regularly, be aware and consume more nutritious foods as well as avoid other risk factors such as tobacco and alcohol use.
One’s diet plays a significant role in the development of heart disease and diabetes. Health needs to be about making informed decisions and a plant-based diet is a one of the healthiest. Start small and eat a plant-based diet once or twice a week to get started.
Dr Cory Couillard is an international healthcare speaker and columnist for numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and publications throughout the world. He works in collaboration with the World Health Organization's goals of disease prevention and global healthcare education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement.
Facebook: Dr Cory Couillard