BEING vegetarian reduces the risk of death or hospital admission from heart disease by almost a third, a major study has shown.
Avoiding meat and fish was associated with significantly better heart health among almost 45,000 adults. In the UK study, a total of 34pc of participants were vegetarian, the vast majority of whom were women.
Over an average follow-up period of 11.6 years, scientists recorded 1,066 hospital admissions due to heart disease, and 169 deaths.
Vegetarians were 3pc less likely to be included in these figures than non-vegetarians. This was after adjusting for a wide range of factors that could have influenced the result, such as age, sex, physical activity, smoking and alcohol consumption, said the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Co-author Professor Tim Key, deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at Oxford University, said: "The results clearly show that the risk of heart disease in vegetarians is about a third lower than in comparable non-vegetarians."
The main reason for the difference is thought to be the effect of a low-fat vegetarian diet on cholesterol and blood pressure. Vegetarians had lower levels of harmful cholesterol in their blood than meat and fish eaters, and reduced systolic, or maximum, blood pressure.
In addition vegetarians tended to be slimmer than non-vegetarians, with a lower body mass index, and they were less likely to be affected by diabetes.
Between the ages of 50 and 70, the chances of dying or becoming seriously ill with heart disease were 6.8pc for non-vegetarians and 4.6pc for vegetarians.
The scientists focused on ischaemic heart disease (ISD), which is caused by blocked arteries depriving the heart muscle of blood.
They concluded: "This analysis showed that British vegetarians have a lower risk of hospitalisation for or death from IHD than do comparable non-vegetarians."