About 600,00 people die every year from heart disease in the United States; that’s one in every four deaths. It is the leading cause of death for both men and women. To what do we owe this epidemic?

Research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition provides some clues. A study of 44,500 people in England and Scotland revealed that vegetarians were 32 percent less likely to die or to need hospital treatment as a result of heart disease.

The scientists looked at data from 15,100 vegetarians and 29,400 people who ate meat and fish. During the course of the 11-year study, 169 participants died from heart disease and 1,066 required hospital treatment — and those individuals were more likely to have been meat and fish eaters than vegetarians.

Differences in cholesterol levels, blood pressure and body weight are thought to be behind the numbers.

“Most of the difference in risk is probably caused by effects on cholesterol and blood pressure,” said Dr. Francesca Crowe, lead author of the study at the Cancer Epidemiology Unit, University of Oxford. “Vegetarians probably have a lower intake of saturated fat, so it makes senses there is a lower risk of heart disease."

The Oxford team calculated the risk reduction at 32 percent after accounting for other factors such as age, smoking, alcohol intake, physical activity, educational level and socioeconomic background. Crowe said, "The main message is that diet is an important determinant of heart health.”

And although the number is sobering, if you’re an omnivore not ready to give up the whole hog, adopting some moderation still might help.

New research published in the Journal of the American Heart Association offers hope for those who want to take the transition one step at a time.

"While you don't have to give up foods derived from animals completely, our study does suggest that eating a larger proportion of plant-based foods and a smaller proportion of animal-based foods may help reduce your risk of having a heart attack, stroke or other type of cardiovascular disease," said lead researcher, Casey M. Rebholz, Ph.D.

Unfortunately, this doesn't mean you can load up on the French fries or potato chips, but rather "unprocessed foods, like fresh fruit, vegetables and grains are good choices," said Mariell Jessup, M.D., the chief science and medical officer of the American Heart Association.

Look for nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods like whole grains and dried legumes, and try to limit refined carbohydrates and added sugar (which is hidden in just about everything).

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in February 2013.

Want to lower your risk for cardiovascular disease? Try a vegetarian diet
Eating mostly plant-based foods and fewer animal-based foods may be linked to better heart health.