There’s no doubting that those who love the meat in their diet, really love the meat in their diet. A cursory glance at most menus shows America’s love affair with meat is at the heart of some of its favorite traditional dishes. But, even if your love of steak and bacon will always remain unshaken, there’s no reason you should have it with every meal. In fact, it seems you’d do well to keep the red meat — at least — as a rare treat. A new study explains that those who lean toward a mostly vegetarian diet tend to be the ones most likely to avoid suffering problems like heart disease and stroke.
The study, from Imperial College London’s School of Public Health, was recently presented to a meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). Its authors show how the greater the ratio of plant to animal products in a person's diet, the more effectively they lessen the danger of cardiovascular problems later in life. "Animal products are the main source of saturated fat and the only source of cholesterol in the diet," says the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "Vegetarians avoid these risky products." However, says Dr. Camille Lassale, chief author of the new study, the team does not intend to make "absolute recommendations about specific nutrients" but to advise on the benefits of generally increasing the vegetable content of one's intake while decreasing "animal-based foods."
The scientists looked at the dietary habits of a little more than 450,000 European citizens who had been part of a larger study into nutrition and cancer conducted for 15 years across 10 countries. The team collected regular information on each subject's height and weight as well as lifestyle, food consumption and physical activity. They scored each participant on a simple system, allotting points for the vegetarian content of their diet — fruit and vegetables, pulses, cereals, potatoes and olive oil — and deducting points for meats and fat, fish and seafood, eggs and other dairy products. The scientists also considered other factors like age, sex, BMI and tobacco and alcohol preferences. From the resulting data, they discovered that those at the furthest extreme of the vegetarian spectrum — whose diet was around 70 percent vegetable-based — on average lowered their chances of cardiovascular disease by 20 percent.
This is not the first time a study has linked a vegetarian diet to good health. As well as a corresponding report in JAMA Internal Medicine that associated vegetarianism with low blood pressure, it has also been shown to help with weight loss, bowel disorder, cholesterol and cancer — by as much as 40 percent according to some sources. Cutting back on carnivorous tendencies has also been linked with reducing the risk of asthma, gallstones and osteoporosis. If that's still not enough, you might even live longer.
Many argue that vegetarianism is a greener and more ethical approach to diet. Recently, our own Vivian Lee looked at the personal challenges of going vegetarian and gave us 10 great reasons for making the change. The days of the dreary nut cutlet, she says, are truly over: "We've come a long way from the days when the only vegetarian options on a menu were either eggplant or something slathered in mushroom sauce. Vegetarian dishes can be just as tasty, if not more so… than your bacon-wrapped bacon."
Even if the full vegetarian approach seems somewhat daunting, there are still ways and means of easing yourself into a healthier future. Why not try what some call the flexitarian approach? Reducing your meat intake one day at a time or just giving your digestive system a rest from all that hard work on a regular basis can do you — and the planet — a world of good.
The American Heart Association naturally supports the idea of "a heart-healthy diet, which could also be described as a pro-vegetarian diet." The menu they advocate is "high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, and nuts, low-fat dairy, beans, skinless poultry, and fish." It is "low in saturated and trans fats and sodium" and should limit sugar and red meat.
In the end, no change in diet has to be something to fear. Remember: if it's bad for your health, you're not "giving it up," you're "letting it go." Even if you love your meat, allowing your body to recover from its effects clearly has material benefits. "Instead of drastic avoidance of animal-based foods," says Dr. Lassale, "substituting some of the meat in your diet with plant-based sources may be a very simple, useful way to lower cardiovascular mortality." So, even if the full vegetarian diet isn't for you, your heart will be in the right place.