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Vegetarians cut heart disease risk

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Vegetarians have less heart disease, a large European study has found.

Vegetarians are nearly a third less likely than meat-eaters to die or be hospitalized from heart disease, British researchers report this week in another study supporting a plant-based diet.

Vegetarians have lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, weigh less and are less likely to have diabetes, as well, the researchers report in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study, which covers 45,000 people over an average of 11 years from the 1990s through 2009, shows that vegetarians were 28 percent less likely to develop heart disease over that time.

The team at Britain’s Oxford University is working on a large, decades-long study called the the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. They’re recruited thousands of people who agree not only to answer questions about diet and lifestyle, but also to have their blood and other health measures regularly checked and reported.

About a third of them say they are vegetarians, which allows the researchers to make strong conclusions about vegetarian diets. That's not so easy, since only about 3 percent to 5 percent of the population is vegetarian.

“The results clearly show that the risk of heart disease in vegetarians is about a third lower than in comparable non-vegetarians,” said Tim Key, deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford.

“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,” Dr. Francesca Crowe, who led the study, said in a statement.

The researchers said they accounted for age, smoking, drinking, exercise, educational level and socioeconomic background in making their calculations. Over the 11 or so years, 1,235 of the volunteers were diagnosed with heart disease, and 169 died of heart disease – the No. 1 cause of death in both Europe and the United States.

The federal government says 81.1 million Americans, or 37 percent of the population, have heart and artery disease.

Many studies support the notion of at least cutting the amount of red meat in the diet. The U.S. government now advises people to eat a plant-based diet, with half of calories from fruits and vegetables and another large chunk from whole grains.

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), “appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases”.

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