You don't have to be a vegetarian or vegan to get the health benefits that come with eating more vegetables and less meat — go semi veggie. A European study just presented at the American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015 meeting finds that substituting some of the meat in your diet with vegetables may be a simple way to lower your chances of developing heart problems.

The fact that what we eat has a big influence on our risk of getting sick or dying from heart disease and stroke has been well publicized. We are confronted with food pyramids and guidelines. We are urged to avoid high fat proteins and fatty meats and include more fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Vegetables have even been credited with improving mood.

Small steps can mean big improvements in health outcomes. People working on a nutritional makeover just need to find a diet they can stick with long-term.

For those who see the recommendations for a heart healthy diet as overly restrictive, and find transitioning from a typical American diet to the recommended amounts and types of foods overwhelming, the study shows that taking even small steps can mean big improvements in health outcomes. People working on a nutritional makeover just need to find a diet they can stick with. That's what really matters for better long-term health.

Diet and good health are not an all-or-nothing proposition, the study found. For 12 years, researchers analyzed the eating habits and health outcomes of over 450,000 Europeans, focusing on height, weight, food consumption, lifestyle and physical activity using questionnaires, health records, and diet histories.

First, the researchers scored participants based on the types of foods they ate. They awarded points for eating foods from seven plant food groups: vegetables, fruit, beans, cereals, potatoes, nuts, and olive oil, and five animal food groups: meats, animal fats, eggs, fish, and other seafood or dairy products.

Participants were then put into groups reflecting how close to a pro-vegetarian diet they came. Pro-vegetarian diets are those that still have some meat protein but contain at least 70% plant-based foods, and participants were ranked from the least to most pro vegetarian diet consumption.

Even with adjustment for other factors that influence heart disease and stroke, such as smoking, physical activity, body mass index, and alcohol intake, when the relationship between eating habits and cause of death was analyzed, the results showed that people who ate the most pro-vegetarian diets had a 20% lower risk of dying from heart disease or stroke than their peers.

Although there are no absolute recommendations for specific nutrients, proponents of a pro-vegetarian diet stress substituting plant-based food for animal-based food as much as possible. The results suggest that whether a pro-vegetarian diet is part of a transition to total vegetarianism or, like the Mediterranean diet, a workable compromise for a confirmed omnivore, it can have a positive impact on health outcomes.

The heart healthy diet recommended by the American Heart Association is in fact a pro-vegetarian diet. It is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, and nuts, low-fat dairy, beans, skinless poultry, and fish. It also encourages eating foods that are low in saturated and trans fats and sodium, and limiting added sugars and red meats.

This new study adds to the growing research on semi-vegetarian eating patterns and cardiovascular risk and offers achievable alternatives to those who are unable to follow a strictly meat-free diet.

People who are interested in making major dietary changes may wish to consult with their health care provider or a nutritionist to be sure that they are getting balanced nutrition and appropriate levels of vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients.