A distinction is commonly made between vegetarianism, pescetarianism (fish and seafood added to a vegetarian diet), flexitarianism (flexible alternative to being a vegetarian, where you may choose to eat meat occasionally), and an omnivorous diet with no restrictions.
We now know that eating less meat, particularly red meat and processed meat products, which are linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, is better for your heart health. As a result, a vegetarian diet is good for your heart. Research has actually shown that it can protect against risk factors of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, as confirmed by a study involving more than 10,000 people in the canton of Geneva over a 13-year period.
People who follow a heart-healthy diet with a reduced meat intake are less likely to be overweight and have high blood pressure while being more likely to have better cholesterol levels and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease than those who eat with no restrictions and follow an omnivorous diet.
The risk of being overweight and having high blood pressure values is reduced if you follow a heart-healthy diet, regardless of whether this diet is vegetarian, pescetarian, or flexitarian. Overall, there is an improvement in no less than four of the main risk factors of cardiovascular disease, namely being overweight, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and diabetes.
The study therefore confirms the results from previous research on the health benefits of these diets, with however, less evidence for flexitarianism.
Experts therefore do not believe that you need to stop eating meat entirely. The Mediterranean diet, which limits meat, has long been considered as the richest diet in terms of heart-healthy foods, such as fruit, vegetables, legumes, and grains, all cooked in olive oil and seasoned with aromatic herbs. Meals are complemented by a moderate intake of dairy products from mainly goat and sheep's milk, a moderate intake of eggs and fish, and a low intake of meat.
This diet is particularly low in saturated fats, for example butter and red meat, but rich in omega-3 and antioxidants, which are great for the heart. A wealth of research has revealed that in regions in northern Europe, particularly in Alsace in northeastern France, where the population is used to eating significant amounts of meat, cured meat, butter, and cream, heart attacks are more common than in Mediterranean regions where the focus is on fish cooked in olive oil, with an abundance of fruit and vegetables. Moreover, the European Society of Cardiology recommends the Mediterranean diet for the general population.
Foods that should ideally be avoided include saturated fats, fatty meat (for example, mutton), ultra-processed foods (cured meat, dry soup mixes, soft drinks, chocolate bars, etc.) as well as, of course, very salty foods and salt in general.
The population seems to have taken this advice on board: the study in Geneva indicates that beef consumption decreased by 15% for women and 9% for men over the 13-year study period. At the same time, more people started following a heart-healthy diet.
However, this is still a small minority: vegetarians represented less than 8% of the population, pescetarians made up 6% and flexitarians formed a maximum of 16% of the population. Total meat consumption ultimately remained fairly stable as consumption of poultry meat increased during the study period.