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/ Source: NBC News
By Maggie Fox
American Heart Association

People don’t have to go all the way vegan or even vegetarian to lower their risk of heart disease. Even a few changes—cutting out some meat and eating more plant foods— can improve health, researchers reported Thursday.

The findings come from a giant, ongoing study of more than 450,000 people living in Europe, who have been having their blood tested, kept food diaries and had their health watched since the 1990s.

People who got 70 percent or more of their food from fruits, vegetables and grains had a 20 percent lower risk of dying from heart diseases, the team at Imperial College London told a meeting of the American Heart Association.

"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 balanced diet," said Camille Lassale, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London's School of Public Health who led the study.

"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 in a statement.

The same ongoing study has found that vegetarians are 28 percent less likely to develop heart disease than meat-eaters.

The American Heart Association says its recommendations could be described as a pro-vegetarian diet. It recommends piling on the fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts, and cutting down on saturated and trans-fats, salt, sugar and red meat.

Other studies have shown that this kind of diet can cut the risk of heart disease dramatically. One found that a Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, olive oil and a little wine can cut the risk of heart attacks and strokes by 30 percent,

The U.S. government now advises people to eat a plant-based diet, with half of calories from fruits and vegetables and another large chunk from whole grains.

This article was originally published Mar. 5, 2015 at 6:41 p.m. ET.