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Until the 1970s, having meat on your plate was something special in most German households because it was simply too expensive for many families. There may have been a roast on weekends or on holidays; yet the main diet consisted of cereals and vegetables. The more the levels of prosperity increased, the higher the level of meat consumption became as well. Which is a trend that has seen a reversal in recent years.

Today, according to the proveg organization, around eight million people in Germany are vegetarians, while 1.3 million are vegans. Reportedly, these numbers rise daily by about 2,000 vegetarians and 200 vegans. The worldwide number of vegan/vegetarian people is estimated at approximately one billion. Plus this meatless diet is healthy, as an over-consumption of red meat in particular increases the risk of heart attacks and strokes. However, as the latest research results suggest, a purely vegetarian or vegan diet is not the healthiest one either. The magic word is fish.

In a study conducted by Oxford University, scientists found out that vegetarians, vegans, and pescatarians (who eat fish) have a lower risk of suffering a heart attack than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and vegans had a higher stroke risk in contrast to pescatarians.

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Members of EPIC-Oxford, the British cohort of the “European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition“, are mainly vegetarians. In the first survey in 1993, 16,354 of the 48,188 participants stated that they did not eat any meat at all; a further 7,506 ate eat fish but no meat, and 24,428 ate meat.

In 2010, a large number was asked about their eating habits again. Based on the results, Tammy Tong from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University was able to research the influence of a long-term meat-free diet on the cardiovascular disease rates.

During the first 18 years, until 2001, 2,820 ischaemic heart diseases and 1,072 strokes occurred, which included 300 haemorrhagic strokes. Tong found a 22% reduction in the risk of ischaemic heart disease in vegetarians, while for pescatarians, these occurred 13%  less often.

Increased risk of stroke

However, among vegetarians and vegans, the stroke hazard increased by 20 %, mainly due to an increase in the number of haemorrhagic strokes. Among pescetarians, there was limited to just a tendency for a higher risk of strokes. Therefore, vegetarians, vegans, and pescatarians had a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease than meat-eaters. However, it remained unclear why a vegetarian diet heightens the risk of haemorrhagic stroke. Scientists speculate that a lack of vitamin B12, vitamin D, or essential amino acids could be responsible for it.

These results raised the question of whether other factors that the study had not considered, such as a healthier lifestyle, were responsible for the fact that non-meat eaters had a lower risk of heart disease than meat-eaters. On the other hand, one could also say that risk factors such as high blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels improve with a vegetarian diet. In turn, this would mean that a vegetarian diet would have even more benefits than previously thought.

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Tong also considered a number of opposing risk factors in her calculations: Vegetarians were 10 years younger than meat-eaters and less likely to suffer from high blood pressure or diabetes. They also had lower cholesterol levels and fewer chronic diseases. They exercised more, smoked less often, and women took hormone preparations less frequently after the menopause.

Further studies necessary

All in all, one can say that a vegetarian diet reduces overall cardiovascular risk. During a 10 year period, the total number of ischaemic heart diseases in every 1,000 people was lower by 10 patients (36.2) than the rate in meat-eaters (46.2 patients). At the same time, there were about three more cases of strokes in vegetarians/vegans (18.3) than in meat-eaters. (15.4). A total of 40.4 pescetarians out of 1,000 had a heart attack while 17.5 people had a stroke.

Since the study was an observational study and the results were mainly based on white Europeans, they may not be generally applicable to other populations, the researchers stress. “Additional studies in other large scale collaborations with a high proportion of non-meat eaters are needed to confirm the generalizations of these results and assess their relevance for clinical practice and public health,” Tammy Tong says.

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