How a Vegan’s Arteries Compare to a Runner’s

We know from the work of Drs. Dean Ornish and Caldwell B. Esselstyn that switching to a plant-based diet can reverse heart disease, opening up arteries in some cases without drugs or surgery. We can’t wait until our first heart attack to start eating healthy, though, because our first symptom of heart disease may be our last. Fifty percent of men and 64% of women who die suddenly from coronary heart disease have no previous symptoms.

To predict the risk of dying from a heart attack, we can measure risk factors such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure. Wouldn’t it be nice to actually see what’s going on inside our arteries before it’s too late? Our imaging technologies are so good that we can, but the required dose of radiation delivered to one’s chest is so high that a young woman getting just a single scan may increase her lifetime risk of breast cancer and lung cancer by between around 1% and 4%.

Our carotid arteries, though, which connect our heart to our brain, come close enough to the surface in our necks that we can visualize the arterial wall using harmless sound waves (ultrasound). Carotid artery wall thickness is what was measured in the study I profiled in Eggs vs. Cigarettes in Atherosclerosis. How do the arteries of those eating plant-based diets compare to those eating the standard American diet? Researchers gathered up some vegans to find out.

In the video above, you can see the thickness of the inner wall of the carotid arteries where the atherosclerotic plaque (considered a predictor of all-cause and cardiovascular mortality) builds up in the standard American diet group. This same inner layer was significantly slimmer in vegans, but so were the vegans themselves. Those eating the standard American diet were, on average, overweight with a BMI over 26 while the vegans were a trim 21—36 pounds lighter on average.

So maybe the only reason those eating meat, eggs, and dairy had thickened arterial walls was because they were overweight—maybe the diet per se had nothing to do with it. To solve the riddle one would have to find a group of people still eating the standard American diet, but as slim as vegans. To find a group that trim, researchers had to use long-distance endurance athletes, who ate the standard American diet, but ran an average of 48 miles per week for 21 years. Both the vegans and the conventional diet group were sedentary—less than an hour of exercise a week.

As you can see in the video above, the average thickness of endurance runners’ carotid arteries is between that of sedentary vegans and omnivores. It appears that if we run an average of about a thousand miles every year we can rival some couch potato vegans. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do both. Read more about the study here.

Another comparison between athletes and plant-eaters can be found in Is It the Diet, the Exercise, or Both? It compares cancer-fighting abilities with a similar result.

Not all studies showed vegans have superior arterial form and function. Find out why in my video Vitamin B12 Necessary for Arterial Health.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live year-in-review presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death and More Than an Apple a Day.

Reversing Heart Disease
Stent or Prevent? Ending Heart Disease
Combating Common Diseases With Plants

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Tammy D.
Tammy D.about a year ago

B12 is found in some fruits, such as avocado i believe, and in seaweeds. Taking a pill is useless. It may be of interest that meat/dairy/egg eaters may be deficient in many things as well. Consuming too much of things may create deficiencies, or mask them. In any diet group, there are always people who don't eat properly. Other things beside diet may cause deficiencies as well. It's a complicated issue that always seems to be boiled down incorrectly.

Tammy D.
Tammy D.about a year ago

What I would like to see is a test group of people who do not drive, but rather walk, cycle and commute by mass transport. I somehow have a feeling this group will score closer to the plant-based diet. Marathon runners are a curious breed, and perhaps not even that healthy. I see the point in using them for the study, but i think a better group could be used.

I, too, do not like all this emphasis on a 'vegan' diet. I prefer 'plant-based', but same-same. Eating meat once a month is different than eating it every day. I dare say that people who forego eggs and dairy, but have meat now and then are going to score better on this test. Personally, I would love for everyone to move to a plant-based diet, but I think that pushing for awareness in our diet and moderation is the key. Cutting out all the other garbage and reducing the total amount of food we eat is just as important as reducing our consumption of animal products and by-products.

Camilla Vaga
Camilla Vagaabout a year ago

there are pills to get those vitamine b12, go vegan

Teresa W.
Teresa W.about a year ago

I'm vegetarian but not vegan. B12 is present not only in corpses, but also in dairy and eggs and I have never been B12 deficient.

Jamie Clemons
Jamie Clemonsabout a year ago

Runner have too low a body fat and run too far and long to be good for their health. A number of earlier studies have suggested that people who run more than 20 miles a week or at an average pace of 7.5 mph or faster are more likely to have shorter lifespans than those who run slower over shorter distances.

Nancy Hatcher
Nancy Hatcherabout a year ago

I am not a vegan and don't plan on ever being a vegan. However I do eat a healthy diet. All of these kinds of articles are very slanted toward veganism.

I don't really care what other people eat and rather resent when others try to make me feel guilty about my choices. Especially when I am careful to choose animal foods that are humanely and organically raised.

Sheila D.
Sheila D.about a year ago

Interesting article, though I would have thought they would have expanded their study to include non-vegans who didn't run who still exercised, non-vegan couch potatoes, vegans who were overweight (yes, there are some), and vegans who exercised moderately or ran. Hopefully, that's next.

Vee Jackson
Past Member about a year ago


Karen S.
Karen S.about a year ago


Michelle Doust
Michelle Doustabout a year ago

Someone always had to mention the B12 deficit. So you would rather not take a darn B12 vitamin everyday and have clogged arteries and die instead? Is this really all you meateaters can come up with? Sheesh!