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In a new study, vegetarians and vegans saw their risk of cardiovascular disease drop by seven percent over a period of five years compared to omnivores.
While it was only a third of the effect of taking statins, medicines that can help lower cholesterol, the researchers said a plant-based diet combined with statins would boost the effect further.
The researchers examined 30 randomised trials with just more than 2,300 participants, published between 1982 and 2022.
The trials revealed how vegetarian and vegan diets affect all types of cholesterol compared to omnivorous diets, where people continue to eat meat and dairy.
The first two types are low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), which is known as the bad cholesterol, and triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood.
The third type is apoliprotein B (apopB), a protein that helps carry fat and cholesterol in blood and is a good indicator of the total amount of bad fats and cholesterol in the body.
Looking at apoliprotein B, they found that vegetarian and vegan diets were linked with a 14 per cent drop in all artery-clogging lipoproteins.
Compared to those eating an omnivorous diet, vegetarians and vegans showed a 10 percent reduction in LDL cholesterol levels.
Overall, they experienced an average drop in total cholesterol of seven percent from when they started the study.
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Study author, Professor Ruth Frikke-Schmidt, a chief physician at the Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen, Denmark, said: “We found that vegetarian and vegan diets were associated with a 14 per cent reduction in all artery-clogging lipoproteins as indicated by apoliprotein B.
“This corresponds to a third of the effect of taking cholesterol-lowering medications such as statins, and would result in a seven per cent reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease in someone who maintained a plant-based diet for five years.
“Statin treatment is superior to plant-based diets in reducing fats and cholesterol levels.
“However, one regimen does not exclude the other, and combining statins with plant-based diets is likely to have a synergistic effect, resulting in an even larger beneficial effect.”
She added: “If people start eating vegetarian or vegan diets from an early age, the potential for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease caused by blocked arteries is substantial.
“Importantly, we found similar results across continents, ages, different ranges of body mass index, and among people in different states of health.”
The participants were randomly picked to follow either a vegetarian or vegan diet or to continue eating meat and dairy.
The length of time on the diets ranged from ten days to five years, with an average of 29 weeks.
Professor Frikke-Schmidt said: “We saw significant effects from both vegetarian and vegan diets and people ranging from a normal weight to obese.”
The study was published in the European Heart Journal.
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