- James Gallagher
- Health and Science Correspondent
A long review of clinical data collected over four decades found that a diet based primarily on plant foods reduced the risk of heart attack.
Researchers in Denmark have found that a vegetarian diet or a diet free of dairy and eggs lowers blood cholesterol and cholesterol levels, which are responsible for an increased risk of heart attacks.
The effect of the vegetarian diet, which is about a third of the daily dose, is “really substantial,” they said.
But experts say meat and dairy products have their own health benefits, and not all meat-free diets are actually healthy.
The research combined 30 trials conducted since 1982 in which volunteer scientists were given a specific diet and monitored its effect on heart health. The total number of participants in this research was about 2,400 people from all over the world.
High levels of bad cholesterol build up fatty deposits in blood vessels, which can eventually lead to heart attack or stroke.
The results, published in the European Heart Journal, showed that a vegetarian diet without meat and its products and a vegetarian diet without dairy and eggs achieved several health benefits.
Reduce bad cholesterol by 10 percent.
Lowers total cholesterol by 7 percent.
Lipoprotein B (the main protein of LDL cholesterol) was reduced by 14 percent.
University professor Ruth Frick-Schmidt, who conducted the study at Rijk Hospital in Denmark, told BBC News: “This corresponds to about a third of the cholesterol-lowering effect of statins – that’s very important.”
These studies would need to track people’s diets over years or even decades to see how this change occurs in the blood.
He used data from statin drug trials to estimate that maintaining such a diet for 15 years would reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 20 percent.
The World Health Organization estimates that cardiovascular disease kills nearly 18 million people each year.
But despite the health benefits of a vegan diet, Schmidt cautioned that anyone following such a diet should avoid taking their prescribed medications because they are at increased risk of heart disease.
Schmidt chose to eat a mostly vegetarian diet, with some chicken and white fish, saying it was “for my health and the environment and because I love it.”
Other diets that include meat, such as the Mediterranean diet, have also been shown to be healthy.
Schmidt said that meat should not be excluded, but “the important message is to rely on plant foods” because it is good for health and the environment.
But it’s worth noting that the subjects participating in the trials were fed “healthy” plant-based diets.
Vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes like chickpeas, and whole grains are very different from sweets, chips, and sugary drinks, even if they’re meat-free.
Professor Aidan Cassidy of Queen’s University Belfast commented that “not all vegan diets are created equal”. Foods like “refined carbohydrates and processed foods high in fat/salt” are even more unhealthy.
There are also questions about the current wave of highly processed plant foods, which differ markedly from the vegan diet of the 1980s.
Quadram Chief Scientific Officer Professor Martin Warren said: “Animal products such as meat represent nutrient-dense foods with other benefits.”
“Similarly, grain-based foods are low in the value of some micronutrients. So in general, reducing meat consumption and maintaining a broad and varied diet is good for health.”
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