Vegetarians are three times less likely to develop heart disease and a host of other problems than meat eaters, researchers from Loma Linda University in California and Karolinska Institute in Sweden revealed last week.
Supporting previous studies’ findings that a fruit- and vegetable-rich diet lowers cholesterol levels, the paper suggested that a purely vegetarian regime cuts the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. People who swear off meat and fish, it found, are 36% less likely to develop metabolic syndrome–a mix of conditions that can be a precursor to the said problems.
A person is said to have metabolic syndrome when he shows three of five determined risk factors: high HDL cholesterol, high levels of triglyceride (unhealthy fat), high blood pressure, high glucose, and a large amount abdominal fat. Only twenty-five percent of the vegetarians in the study had metabolic syndrome, compared to 39% of meat eaters.
Semi-vegetarians–those who only eat white meat–are only slightly less at risk than non-vegetarians. The same was true for pesco-vegetarians, whose meat consumption is limited to fish. Thirty-seven percent of those studied suffered from the syndrome.
The team studied members of the Seventh-Day Adventist group, which values healthy eating and discourages meat consumption. Because of the limited scope, the subjects aren’t representative of the entire population and the overall risk levels may be higher. However, they still support current advice on healthy eating, according to experts.
Nico Rizzo, one of the researchers, said the team wasn’t sure at the outset whether there would be a notable difference between vegetarians and meat eaters. But the extent of the contrast surprised them, and proves that lifestyle factors, especially diet, do play an important role in preventing metabolic syndrome and heart disease.
The research also bolsters the well-known fact that processed meats, such as bacon and sausages, greatly increase the risk of bowel cancer and other types of cancer. The curing and cooking processes are known to introduce free radicals, which create the DNA changes from which cancers can originate.
The study was published in Diabetes Care, a peer-reviewed medical journal. It was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and is part of the ongoing Adventist Health Study 2. The religious group is heavily studied because of its members’ unique dietary habits and health beliefs. Besides avoiding meat, the faith also discourages smoking and drinking, which means researchers can easily control for these factors.