Vegetarian (including vegan) and pescetarian diets may be linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), than diets that include meat, suggest the findings of a large UK study published in The BMJ today. However, vegetarians and vegans had a higher risk of stroke than meat eaters, particularly haemorrhagic stroke (bleeding into the brain), which the researchers suggest may reflect low blood levels of total cholesterol or a low intake of certain vitamins.
In recent years, more people have been turning to vegetarian and vegan diets, in part due to the perceived health benefits, as well as concerns about the environment or animal welfare. However, the full extent of the potential health benefits and risks of these diets is not well understood.
Previous studies have suggested that vegetarians have a lower risk of CHD than non-vegetarians, but data from large studies are limited and little has been reported on the difference in risk of stroke.
Researchers from CEU used data from the EPIC-Oxford study, a prospective cohort with one of he largest number of vegetarians, to explore the risks of CHD and stroke in meat eaters, pescetarians (who eat fish but not meat) and vegetarians over an 18 year period.
The study, led by Dr Tammy Tong, included information on 48,188 people (average age 45 years) recruited between 1993-2001, who had no history of CHD or stroke. They were grouped into meat eaters (24,428), pescetarians (7,506), and vegetarians, including vegans (16,254).
There were 2,820 cases of CHD and 1,072 cases of stroke during the study period, including 519 cases of ischaemic stroke (when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain) and 300 cases of haemorrhagic stroke.