A team of experts at the University of Glasgow found that biomarker levels were healthier among vegetarians regardless of age, weight, smoking or alcohol intake.
The study provides solid evidence that dietary choices affect the levels of disease biomarkers, and that a vegetarian diet is associated with metabolic benefits.
Biomarkers are measurable indicators of good or bad health effects that play a role in promoting, or preventing, chronic conditions such as cardiovascular and age-related diseases.
“Biomarkers have been widely used to assess the effect of diets on health. However, evidence of the metabolic benefits associated with being vegetarian is inconclusive,” wrote the researchers.
The goal of the study was to investigate the associations of vegetarians and meat-eaters with 19 health-related biomarkers in healthy adults.
The experts analyzed data from 177,723 individuals between the ages of 37 and 73 who participated in the UK Biobank study. The research was focused on people who reported no major changes in their diet over the last five years.
Based on blood and urine samples, the researchers examined the association with 19 disease biomarkers related to diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer, liver, bone and joint health, and kidney function.
Compared to meat-eaters, vegetarians were found to have significantly lower levels of 13 biomarkers, including total cholesterol, bad cholesterol, a protein linked to cardiovascular disease, and a hormone that promotes the growth and proliferation of cancer cells.
On the other hand, vegetarians had lower levels of several beneficial biomarkers, including good cholesterol, vitamin D, and calcium.
“Our findings offer real food for thought,” said Dr. Carlos Celis-Morales, who led the research. “As well as not eating red and processed meat which have been linked to heart diseases and some cancers, people who follow a vegetarian diet tend to consume more vegetables, fruits, and nuts which contain more nutrients, fiber, and other potentially beneficial compounds.”
“These nutritional differences may help explain why vegetarians appear to have lower levels of disease biomarkers that can lead to cell damage and chronic disease.”
When the researchers accounted for potentially influential factors including age, sex, education, ethnicity, obesity, smoking, and alcohol intake, the beneficial effects of a vegetarian diet persisted.
The research will be presented this week at the European Congress on Obesity.