Vegetarianism and Heart Disease

Dr Swami Shankardevananda Saraswati, MBBS

Diet is an important factor in our lives and meat has become an important factor in our diet over the past few decades. Alongside this increased meat consumption, there has also been an increase in such illnesses as high blood pressure, cancer and other degenerative and psychosomatic diseases. How much can these diseases be related to meat eating?

Certainly, parallel with the increased intake of meat is the increasingly rapid pace of modern society, fast changing technology is placing many demands on the flexibility of one's personality and adding to the stress and tension levels that an individual must cope with. The increase of psychosomatic and degenerative diseases is probably best seen as the interrelation of a multitude of such factors.

Nevertheless, diets heavy in meat have been implicated in colonic cancer, high blood pressure (hypertension), heart attack (coronary heart disease) and certain forms of joint disease (such as arthritis) because of the high fat and uric acid content of meat. While it has not been proved that vegetarian diet can absolutely cure these diseases, there is evidence to indicate that a vegetarian diet is helpful in the management of these illnesses. To be fully effective, however, such a diet would also have to be free from other forms of excessive fat and sugar, and low in processed foods. If we are able to find an ideal diet capable of helping to overcome the plague of modern, 'civilised' illnesses - of which coronary artery disease is one of the most widespread - then we must take into account the purity of the diet as a whole.

We take food into our bodies, metabolise this food, utilise the energy it contains, and then throw out the wastes and poisons. In choosing the food we eat we have two possible alternatives. Firstly, we can concentrate on good, nutritious pure food that contains only a minimum of poison and waste. Such food actually aids in the elimination of toxins that have already been accumulated. A diet chosen on this basis would contain a maximum of vegetables, fruits and grains and a minimum of meat and processed foods. Secondly, we can build our diet around animal foods, and the fashionable, convenient packaged foods that promise us the maximum of flavour with the minimum of preparation. The manufacturers of such synthetic foods can only offer these 'advantages' at the expense of freshness and by adding numerous chemicals to preserve the appearance and flavour that have been depleted by processing. If our diet is of this second kind, then we take in too many toxins which then accumulate in the body because of the overload placed on out eliminative faculties.

Natural enthusiasts have long warned of the necessity to avoid building up chemicals in our bodies that harm our system. When these toxins reach a critical level they manifest as illnesses like colds, fevers, diarrhoea, boils or infections - all of which are attempts by the body to cleanse itself of impurities. When the body is unable to throw off its impurities, then organic illnesses like heart disease result. A simple, light diet of just the correct quantity to prevent overload of the system is the means to help remove toxins and increase vitality and energy.

It has long been a controversial topic as to whether cholesterol is responsible for arteriosclerosis. Arteriosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries, is a process which involves laying down fats and other deposits inside the walls of blood vessels. This causes them to become more narrow and prevents the blood from reaching its destination. To compensate, the heart must work harder to pump the blood under greater pressure. It is this which leads to heart attack, hypertension and other vascular diseases which cause the decay of certain body tissues, and early death.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance manufactured in the body and taken in through the food we eat. The link between the two is not clear, but one is believed to influence the other. If the body is unbalanced through mental and physical stress, a major factor in heart disease, this reflects into the cholesterol mechanism and puts it out of tune with the other body mechanisms. This probably results in excessive absorption and internal production of cholesterol, plus an ability to excrete sufficient to maintain a balance this fat accumulates in the body and must be put somewhere. In the process of circulation through the body, fats stick to the walls of blood vessels and clog up the system.

Meat is the main source of cholesterol in the diet, followed by dairy products. It stands to reason that anyone with a heart problem should avoid this excessive fat by reducing their intake of meat and all other substances high in animal fats. Animal fats are called 'saturated' and have a high affinity for storage in the human body. They are responsible for the majority of fat-related diseases. Saturated fats are found in visible form in meat and dairy products, and in invisible form in cakes, pastries, thick soups, and most cheeses. Eggs, butter and hard margarines are also full of saturated fats and should be replaced with soft margarines and vegetable oils.

Science News (21-8-71) carries a report from Dr John Grainer, showing that high protein diets (most of which are meat based) are a major contributing factor in heart disease. Increased protein levels reduce the oxygen - carrying capacity of the blood. He also showed that rabbits on a high cholesterol diet had thicker blood vessel walls than rabbits on a normal diet. However, rabbits on a combined high cholesterol and high protein diet had the thickest vessels of all. Grainer's work definitely indicates that excessive meat consumption plays a major role in heart disease.

There are also studies that reveal the positive effects of vegetarian diets on managing heart disease. J. C. Annand (1959) and Yarushalmy and Hillboe (1957) have surveyed various countries and found that the higher the level of vegetable consumption, the lower the level of heart disease. Of course, countries with a vegetarian diet also have a less competitive lifestyle and less stress than heavy meat-eating nations, so more definitive work is required in this area to isolate the relevant factors, but the direction has been indicated. Annand found that vegetable protein actually exerts a powerful protective action against arteriosclerosis. That fat is not the single key factor is indicated by Dr M. F. Oliver whose report in Lancet showed that even if a low-fat diet were maintained for up to three years, it did not lessen the death rate and suffering associated with arteriosclerosis. On the other hand, Dr L. Mac Donald published a dramatic study on the effectiveness of a vegetarian diet, reporting that after four or five weeks on a diet high in fresh vegetables, subjects showed a significant reduction in the thickness of affected blood vessels.

Of the mountains of data accumulated on the role of diet in blood vessel and circulatory disease, there are a few established facts:

  1. People with a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol have a higher than average blood cholesterol level. These high-fat diets are more often meat-centred than vegetarian.
  2. High blood cholesterol is associated with high death rates due to coronary heart disease.
  3. Any individual whose blood levels of cholesterol exceed 250 mg per 100 mls, or whose triglyceride level is higher than 160 mg per 100 mls, should modify his diet by avoiding excessive quantities of meat and other animal products.
  4. Arteriosclerosis and coronary heart disease take many years to develop and good dietary habits should be established in the first two decades of life. These recommendations have been made by expert committees in the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Germany, New Zealand, Australia, England and the USA - all countries where the meat intake is high.

No matter what facts and figures are presented from scientific research, it remains that degenerative heart disease is on the increase throughout the world, and is paralleled by an increase in stress. To combat this a change in lifestyle is essential, including a reduction in meat intake, or, if possible, complete abstention combined with yogic techniques. As Albert Einstein said way back in 1930:

"It is my view that the vegetarian manner of living, by its purely physical effect on the human temperament, would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind."