30 Jan 2013

Vegetarian diet reduces heart disease risk by up to a third

In the biggest ever study of its kind in the UK, researchers from Oxford University have found a vegetarian diet dramatically reduces the risk of heart disease. Will it change the way we eat?

Vegetarian salad (getty)

Fancy a burger tonight? A new report might make you think again about your dinner. Researchers from the University of Oxford have analysed the diets of almost 45,000 volunteers in England and Scotland, to compare the rates of heart disease in those who do, and don’t eat meat and fish.

The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that vegetarians had a 32 per cent lower risk of falling ill or dying from heart disease.

Dr Francesca Crowe, who lead the team from the university’s cancer epidemiology unit, said: “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.”

The research was funded by Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council, and began recruiting volunteers to take part during the 1990s. Around a third of the participants were vegetarian.

The volunteers were asked detailed questions about their diet and exercise, as well as other factors which might affect health, like smoking, alcohol consumption, and educational and socio-economic background.

Seismic shift

Those who didn’t eat meat or fish had lower blood pressures and levels of cholesterol than the others, which the experts concluded was the main factor behind the reduced risk of heart disease.

Other research already shows people are already becoming inclined to eat less meat. Global food trends agency Thefoodpeople carried out a study earlier this month, predicting a 50 per cent surge in vegetarianism in the UK.

They also found the number of people adopting a semi-meat, or flexitarian diet was also rapidly increasing. The agency’s director, Charles Banks described it as a mega-trend: “20 years ago vegetarianism was scoffed at, but of late there has been a seismic shift in attitudes towards celebrating vegetables and opting to eat less meat.”

The benefits of a move away from meat don’t just have a health impact: there are economic consequences too. David Jago, a director at Mintel, is also an advisory board member for the IFE13 International Food Exhibition. He told Channel 4 News there was a huge potential in the UK market for vegetarian food.

“Currently only 6 per cent of Brits classify themselves as vegetarian, but nearly 40 per cent buy vegetarian or ‘meat free’ food”, he said. “The meat-free market in the UK is worth £634m, which is already forecast to reach £800m by 2017. A study like this is sure to have even more impact on the rate of sales growth.”

Eating less meat could be just the right message for these cash-straitened times. Vegetarian food is, on average, around 60 per cent cheaper than meat or fish, as well as being better for the environment, and animal welfare.

Healthy living

Many top chefs are eschewing traditional ideas of what makes a balanced meal, and experimenting with new tastes and textures, incorporating grains and pulses into dishes based entirely around vegetables.

The River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall made headlines by turning vegetarian for several months, ending his experiment by announcing he had revolutionised his diet. “I have undergone a sea change in the way I cook”, he wrote. “It is now the case that most of the meals I eat contain no meat or fish. And I can tell you, with my hand on my heart, that I eat better than ever.”

And vegetable based cookery books from the likes of Nigel Slater, Yotam Ottolenghi and Fearnley-Whittingstall himself have stormed to the top of the best seller charts.

Last year’s fashionable food trends were all about meat, and the more the better: gourmet burgers, bespoke hot dogs, fancy fried chicken. But given the clear evidence of the Oxford study – vegetarianism could become the next big thing. You can bet your life on it.