The finding came from new research from the University of Oxford and was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study is the largest yet to compare cardiovascular disease rates between vegetarians and meat eaters.
Heart disease is the biggest cause of death in developed countries and accounts for 65,000 deaths in the UK each year. This study, however, indicates that eating a vegetarian diet could considerably lower a person's risk of cardiovascular disease.
Lead author Dr. Francesca Crowe, from the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, explained:
"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 experts analyzed nearly 45,000 participants (34% were vegetarian) from England and Scotland who signed up for the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Oxford study.
These kinds of reports do not usually have a significant representation of vegetarians as this one does, therefore, the team was able to make more accurate approximations of the relative risks between the vegetarians and non-vegetarians.
The EPIC-Oxford cohort report was conducted by the Cancer Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford and received funding from the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.
Professor Tim Key, co-author and deputy director of the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford, said: "The results clearly show that the risk of heart disease in vegetarians is about a third lower than in comparable non-vegetarians."
After controlling for certain variables that may have affected the results, such as smoking, age, physical activity, alcohol intake, socioeconomic background, and educational level, the scientists came up with the statistic of 32% risk reduction.
During the 1990s, subjects were enrolled in the study and asked to fill out questionnaires concerning their well-being and current lifestyle. The participants were asked about their diet, exercise, smoking, and alcohol consumption.
About 20,000 volunteers' blood pressures were also measured, and they gave samples of their blood so that the scientists could check their cholesterol.
The participants were monitored until 2009, during which time 1,235 cases of cardiovascular disease were discovered. This consisted of 169 deaths and 1066 hospital diagnoses recognized through records in hospitals and certificates of death.
The experts utilized data from the MINAP (Myocardial Ischaemia National Audit Project) in order to confirm cases of heart disease.
According to the scientists, compared to the non-vegetarians, vegetarians had lower cholesterol levels and blood pressures, which is believed to be the primary reason they experienced a lower risk of heart disease.
As a consequence of the vegetarians' diets, they generally had lower BMI (body mass indices) and fewer cases of diabetes. Prior research also demonstrated that eating a vegetarian diet and exercising three or more times a week can significantly lower the risk of diabetes. However, BMI and diabetes were not found to notably influence the results.
When the results were adjusted to leave out the impact of BMI, vegetarians had a 28% reduced chance of developing heart disease.
The authors concluded:
The findings reinforce the idea that diet is central to prevention of heart disease, and build on previous work looking at the influence of vegetarian diets."