- U.K. researchers have found that vegetarians have better indicators of health, called biomarkers, than people who eat meat.
- Vegetarians had overall lower levels of cholesterol, among other biomarkers.
- Experts say people don't have to become vegetarian to be healthy. Instead, eating meat in moderation can lead to better health.
People who follow a vegetarian diet have a healthier biomarker profile than meat eaters, found a new observational study of more than 177,000 British adults being presented at this week's European Congress on Obesity (ECO).
According to the researchers, this applied to people of any age and weight, and was unaffected by tobacco and alcohol consumption.
Biomarkers used as evidence of good or bad health effects
The term “biomarker” is a combination of two words — “biological marker” — which is a collection of medical signs that can be accurately measured.
Biomarkers can indicate good or poor health effects, cardiovascular and age-related disease, and other chronic conditions. They're also widely used to assess the effects of diet on health.
To discover whether dietary choices can change the levels of disease biomarkers in blood and urine, researchers at the University of Glasgow did a cross-sectional study analyzing data from 177,723 healthy participants. They were between 37 and 73 years old and from the U.K. Biobank database and research resource. They reported no major changes in their diets over the last 5 years.
Vegetarians had significantly reduced risk of heart disease and cancer
“Vegetarian and other [similar] dietary choices have become quite popular,” Carlos Celis-Morales, PhD, the study’s lead researcher, told Healthline. “However, we don’t fully understand the health benefits of being a vegetarian compared to a meat eater.”
“To address this research question, we have used one of the most extensive studies available and compared a large panel of health-related biomarkers in people who self-reported as vegetarian or meat eater at least during the last 5 years,” he said.
Celis-Morales and team found that vegetarians had significantly lower levels of 13 biomarkers that indicated reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and developing cancer.
The researchers found that vegetarians had lower concentrations of total cholesterol, both LDL (bad) cholesterol and HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as certain markers of liver function, among others.
Vegetarian participants did have higher levels of triglycerides and a protein called cystatin C, however, which may indicate decreased kidney function.
Despite these findings, Celis-Morales said he doesn't expect people to completely give up meat immediately.
“It is not easy to just stop eating meat if we have been doing this for a long time,” Celis-Morales said. “Therefore a more feasible target could be reducing its intake and replacing it with other healthy options such as oily fish, which is also a rich source of proteins and omega-3 and other essential nutrients.”
Diet strongly influences health
“Yes, lifestyle at large and especially your diet has a major influence on your overall health,” said Dr. Aeshita Dwivedi, a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. “Many diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and certain kinds of cancers are strongly associated with dietary habits.”
Dwivedi explained that limiting or eliminating meat, especially red meat, has multiple health benefits.
“Studies have shown that vegetarian or vegan diets can reduce your risk for elevated cholesterol and high blood pressure, both being precursors to heart disease,” she said. “In addition to being beneficial for heart health, meat-free can contribute to healthy weight loss and even reduce the risk of colon cancer.”
Plant-heavy diets like Mediterranean and DASH reduce disease risk, expert says
According to Dr. Guy L. Mintz, Northwell Health’s director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at the Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in New York, the Mediterranean diet, which includes high vegetable and fish intake, can reduce the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from heart disease by about 30 percent.
He also mentioned the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which can improve high blood pressure, a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke.
“The present study provides further proof and reassurance that a vegetarian diet can reduce dangerous biomarkers that contribute to heart disease,” Mintz said. “These include total cholesterol, LDL (bad cholesterol), lipoprotein A, and lipoprotein B (other bad cholesterol proteins), and inflammation.”
Mintz believes that the best diet is the one you can adhere to, which for certain people may include some meat. “Everything in moderation can coexist,” he said.
Mintz added that a heart-healthy diet should be similar to a Mediterranean diet and consist of vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, whole grains, and olive oil, with moderate amounts of poultry and eggs and occasionally red meat.
Meat-heavy diet increases cholesterol and heart disease risk
“A meat-heavy diet can lead to increased levels of bad cholesterol (LDL cholesterol),” Dwivedi said.
She explained that this leads to formation of blockages that can cause heart attacks and strokes, and elevated cholesterol levels may cause stiffening of the blood vessels, which also contributes to high blood pressure.
“Adopting a healthy plant-based diet may help slow down and, in some cases, even reverse disease processes,” Dwivedi said. “Dietary changes may also help decrease the number of medications needed to manage chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes.”
But eating healthy doesn't mean abstaining from meat totally.
“Sustainability is key to a healthy lifestyle,” Dwivedi emphasized. “One must follow a diet that is feasible in the long term, and for some that may include eating meat in moderation.”
She explained that lean meats, like poultry and fish, are healthier than red meats like beef, lamb, and pork.
“Lean meats are also effective in providing protein without the downside of high cholesterol,” she added.
According to Dwivedi, meat also offers vitamin B12, a vitamin lacking in purely plant-based diets.
“In moderation, meat can also add a good variety and flavor profile to an individual’s diet,” she said.
The bottom line
Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that vegetarians have better indicators of health, called biomarkers, than meat eaters.
The researchers found that these biomarkers indicated significantly reduced risk of diseases like high blood pressure, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.
Experts say you don’t need to eliminate meat entirely to reap health benefits. Switching to moderate amounts of lean meat like fish and chicken can also help.
Experts also say that the best diet is the one you can stick to, and the plant-heavy Mediterranean or DASH diets, which allow for some meat consumption, are strongly associated with improved health.