Eating fish, but not meat, offers key health benefits

Published: 14 December 2020

Compared with meat eaters, fish eaters have a lower risk of several adverse heart diseases, including stroke.

Compared with meat eaters, fish eaters have a lower risk of several adverse heart diseases, including stroke.

These findings, which were part of new research looking at the diets and risk of developing or dying from heart diseases of more than 420,000 people in the UK, also concluded that vegetarianism was associated with a lower risk of developing heart disease.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Glasgow and published today in the European Heart Journal, suggests that a pescatarian diet should be promoted and encouraged as a healthy option.

The study, which set out to find whether vegetarians, fish, poultry or meat eaters had a higher risk of developing or dying from heart diseases, used data from the UK Biobank to link diets with health in the British population.

Researchers found that meat-eaters, who comprised 94.7% of the cohort, were more likely to be obese than other diet groups. After a median follow-up of 8.5 years, fish eaters, compared with meat-eaters, had lower risks of cardiovascular outcomes such as stroke, heart disease and heart failure.

Vegetarians had lower risk of developing heart diseases. However, the researchers noted that, as a group, vegetarians consumed more unhealthy foods, such as crisps, than meat-eaters and that therefore vegetarians should not be considered a homogeneous group. They concluded that the avoidance of meat does not appear sufficient to reduce health risks if a person’s overall diet is not healthy.

Overall, meat-eaters consumed the least fibre, polyunsaturated fat, water, and fruit and vegetables. However, vegetarians reported consuming more crisps, slices of pizza and smoothie drinks than meat-eaters. Fish eaters were more likely to drink more sugary drinks and ready meals compared with the other groups, but also reported eating the least amount of takeaways. Fish & poultry eaters were more likely to eat home-cooked meals, followed by vegetarians.

In comparison to meat-eaters, vegetarian, fish, and fish & poultry eaters were younger, more likely to be women, south Asian and to have a lower body weight. Meat-eaters, in turn, were more likely to have more than one multimorbidity, and to be current smokers.

Professor Jill Pell, senior author on the study from the University of Glasgow, said: “Our findings showed that people who follow a pescatarian diet are less likely to suffer from heart disease, stroke, and heart failure, than people who eat meat. Reducing consumption of meat, especially red and processed meat, could improve health as well as being more environmentally sustainble.”

Fanny Petermann-Rocha, led author from the University of Glasgow said: “It is likely that fish eaters have a higher intake of cardio-protective nutrients such as polyunsaturated fats and, which could explain the lower risk association between fish eaters and heart diseases in our study. In particular, the polyunsaturated fat N-3 has been shown to be cardio-protective, and oily fish is one of its rich sources.”

Finally, Dr Carlos Celis highlighted: “Cardiovascular diseases remains one of the top ten causes of death worldwide. Although there are several behavioural risk factors, a poor diet accounts for around 11 million of these deaths worldwide. Of these, 3.8 million deaths have been attributable to a diet low in fruit and vegetables, 1.4 million to a diet low in seafood intake and 150,000 to high red and processed meat intake”.

The study, ‘Vegetarians, fish, poultry, and meat-eaters: who has higher risk of CVD incidence and mortality? A prospective study from UK Biobank’ is published in the European Heart Journal. The work was conducted using data from the UK Biobank.

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First published: 14 December 2020