Eating more plant foods than animal products can significantly lower the risk of heart attack and stroke, a new study reveals.

Diets consisting of 70 percent plant-based products, such as vegetables, grains, nuts, and fruits were found to lower the incidence of stroke and cardiac arrest by 20 percent, compared to people who ate diets of 50 percent or more of animal products.

Researchers examined the diet and health of 451,256 Europeans in order to reach their conclusions. The subjects came from 10 countries and were 35 to 70 years old at the start of the study, which tracked participants over an average of 12 years. Subjects self-reported their dietary choices as well as activity levels and lifestyle choices. Physical information such as height and weight were also included in the study.

Investigators measured the incidence of heart attacks and strokes, including fatal incidents, and compared that information to dietary reports. Subjects in the study were ranked according to diet, from the least to most vegetarian. Consumption of foods from seven plant-based groups added points to a person's score, while eating foods from five categories of products derived from animals resulted in lowering a score.

"A pro-vegetarian diet doesn't make absolute recommendations about specific nutrients. It focuses on increasing the proportion of plant-based foods relative to animal-based foods, which results in an improved nutritionally balance diet," Camille Lassale, an epidemiologist from the School of Public Health at Imperial College London, said.

Many health care workers encourage patients to consume more plant-based foods, including fruits and vegetables, to replace meat, eggs, and other animal products. A Mediterranean diet, which involves the consumption of large quantities of plants and few animal products, is popular among many people seeking to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke.

Although the study shows that people consuming pro-vegetarian diets have lower risks than others for these life-threatening conditions, the reason for the correlation remains unclear. Although the raw data in the study was corrected for certain information, including age, weight and lifestyle choices, it is possible that other factors could also account for some of the difference seen between the groups.

The new study is an outgrowth of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (Epic), which began in 1992.

"Instead of drastic avoidance of animal-based foods, substituting some of the meat in your diet with plant-based sources may be a very simple, useful way to lower cardiovascular mortality," Lassale said.

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