By eliminating meat, or animal protein and fat, from their diet vegetarians reduce their risk of getting coronary artery disease and having a heart attack. In fact, they are 32 percent less likely to get a heart attack than meat eaters, according to a 2013 British study of over 44,000 men and women of whom one third were vegetarians.
Assuming a vegetarian does not have the well-known risk factors for cardiovascular disease (high blood pressure, smoking, obesity, sedentary lifesytle) why do some still have heart attacks?
In 1998 three men won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for a revolutionary discovery. They discovered what causes arteries to constrict or dilate (widen). It's nitric oxide, a gas molecule that acts as a signal between the cells that line the artery (endothelial cells) and the arterial wall. When nitric oxide is released by the endothelial cell the artery widens and blood flow is improved. A good thing.
The endothelial cells are the lifejacket or guardian of the vessel. As goes the endothelial lining, so goes the health of the artery. If we're talking about coronary arteries, the arteries that nourish the heart muscle, then the health of the heart in the long run is dependent on the health of the endothelial lining of the arteries that feed it blood nutrients.
The health of the endothelial lining is intimately affected by the food we eat. An abundance of research has shown that fats and oils, of any kind, are now known to make the endothelial lining sticky, allowing white blood cells, fat, and debris to adhere to the endothelial cells, causing a cascade of more white blood cells, fat, and debris to clump up eventually forming what is call a plaque.
As the plaque enlarges over time it will encroach upon the lumen or inside passageway of the artery and result in narrowings, or bottle-neck passageways, impairing the normal flow of blood downstream from the site of the plaque, especially if there's a demand on the heart to increase its pumping rate. Not a good thing.
The braod categories of food that contribute fat to the diet are meats, dairy, and oils.
So vegetarians will damage the critical endothelial lining of their arteries when they eat foods like milk, eggs, cheese, nuts, coconut, coconut oil, yogurt, butter, any oil (including olive oil, canola oil, etc.), pizza, cookies, muffins, donuts, ice cream, cheese crackers, cinnamon rolls, processed biscuits, frozen desserts, whipped cream, avocados, chocolate, just to name a few. Over time the cumulative damaging effects these foods have on the endothelial lining will eventually take its toll.
The science continues to bear out that in preventing heart disease it is paramount to keep one's endothelial lining healthy so that it effectively produces nitric oxide, keeping the inside artery slick and smooth, and widening the arteries maintaining good blood flow while preventing the plaques that are otherwise sure to develop. The foods that most aptly do this are vegetables, fruits, and grains of all kinds.
The more vegetables, fruits, and grains one eats the better protected and maintained your arteries are. The more meat, dairy, and oils one eats the more your arteries are damaged and prone to plaques -- that result in heart attacks.
Interestingly, it is the secretion of nitric oxide that dilates the penile arteries and causes an erection in men. Medications like Viagra facilitate an erection by prolonging the dilating effect of the penile arteries by allowing nitric oxide, produced in too little amounts in impotent men, to continue the widening effect of the artery, increasing blood flow that produces an erection.
In young, pre-middle aged men who suffer from impotence, this symptom alone can be an early sign that he has or is developing significant coronary artery disease. Moreover, if he has risk factors to boot then he may want to get evaluated for heart disease.
Men with impotence who eat a whole food, plant-based diet have been known to regain their sexual function without medication. This is because those foods are friends to the endothelial lining and allow it to do its thing -- the artery, that is -- to maintain and improve healthy blood flow.
In short, if you are a vegetarian, and especially if you're not, you can arrest or reverse heart disease by eating more fruits, vegetables, and grains, and eating a lot less (or eliminating) meats, dairy, and oils.