Until the 1970s, meat on the plate was something special in most German households because it was simply too expensive for many families. There might have been a roast on weekends or on holidays; otherwise, the main diet consisted of cereal products and vegetables. The more prosperity grew, the more the meat consumption grew as well, a trend that has been reversed in recent years.
Today, according to proveg, around eight million people in Germany are vegetarians, about 1.3 million are vegans. Reportedly, these numbers increase daily by about 2,000 vegetarians and 200 vegans. The worldwide number of vegan/vegetarian living humans is estimated at approx. one billion. And this meatless diet is healthy since a too high 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. And the magic word is fish.
In a study conducted by Oxford University, scientists found out that vegetarians, vegans, and pescetarians (who eat fish) have a lower risk to suffer a heart attack than meat-eaters. Vegetarians and vegans, in contrast to pescetarians, had an increased stroke risk.
The 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 again asked about their eating habits. Based on the results, Tammy Tong from the Nuffield Department of Population Health at Oxford University was able to investigate the influence of a long-term meat-free diet on the rate of cardiovascular disease.
During the first 18 years, until 2001, 2,820 ischaemic heart diseases and 1,072 strokes, including 300 hemorrhagic strokes, occurred. In vegetarians, Tong found a 22% reduction in the risk of ischaemic heart disease, while it occurred 13% fewer in pescetarians.
Increased risk of stroke
However, among vegetarians and vegans, the stroke hazard increased by 20 %, mainly due to an increase in the number of hemorrhagic strokes. Among pescetarians, there was only a tendency of increased stroke hazard. Therefore, vegetarians, vegans, and pescetarians had a much lower risk of cardiovascular disease than meat-eaters. However, it remained unclear why a vegetarian diet increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke. The scientists can only suspect 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 improve with a vegetarian diet. In turn, this would mean that a vegetarian diet would have even more benefits than previously thought.
Tong also considered a number of competing risks 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. Over a period of 10 years, the absolute number of ischaemic heart diseases in every 1,000 people was lower by 10 (36.2) than the rate in meat-eaters (46.2). At the same time, there were about three more cases of strokes in vegetarians/vegans (18.3) than in meat-eaters. (15,4). 40.4 of 1,000 pescetarians had a heart attack and 17.5 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 cohorts with a high proportion of non-meat eaters are needed to confirm the generalizability of these results and assess their relevance for clinical practice and public health,” Tammy Tong says.
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