A study emanating from the United Kingdom, published in the British Medical Journal, asserts that vegetarian and vegan diets are associated with a 20% higher risk of stroke compared to meat-inclusive diets.
While previous studies have highlighted the health benefits of plant-based diets, including reduced risks of heart disease and certain cancers, this research prompts renewed examination of dietary impacts.
Details of the Study
Researchers monitored the diets and health outcomes of 48,188 men and women in Oxford over 18 years, grouping participants based on their dietary preferences into meat eaters, fish eaters (pescatarians), and vegetarians (including vegans).
Despite the significant differences between vegetarian and vegan diets, the study combined these groups due to the small number of vegan participants.
The study was observational, analyzing associations without establishing cause-and-effect relationships.
The researchers accounted for numerous variables known to influence heart disease and stroke risks, such as education level, smoking status, alcohol consumption, and physical activity levels.
Vegetarians exhibited a 22% lower risk of heart disease, equating to ten fewer cases per 1,000 vegetarians compared to meat eaters over a decade.
Conversely, vegetarians had a 20% higher rate of stroke, equivalent to three more strokes per 1,000 vegetarians over ten years.
Fish eaters had a 13% lower risk of heart disease, with no significant increase in stroke rate compared to meat eaters.
The findings regarding heart disease are attributed to beneficial factors associated with vegetarian diets, such as lower body mass index, cholesterol levels, incidence of diabetes, and blood pressure.
Interpretation and Limitations
Though this study suggests that vegetarians have an increased risk of stroke, it does not establish vegetarian diets as the causal factor; the association might be related to other lifestyle factors inherent to vegetarians or the consumption of processed and ultra-processed vegetarian foods high in added salt, trans fat, and saturated fats.
A major limitation of the study is the amalgamation of vegetarian and vegan groups, overlooking potential variance in nutrient levels between these diets.
Moreover, the study is unable to furnish a biological explanation (“a mechanism”) for the observed associations, rendering any suggestions regarding nutrient intake differences speculative.
This study alone does not warrant alterations in dietary preferences, especially considering its singular finding in contrast to the plethora of studies endorsing the benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets.
Balanced intake of whole foods, rich in fruits, vegetables, cereals, and grains, along with minimized consumption of processed foods laden with sugars, salt, and fats, remains paramount, regardless of dietary orientations.
Further investigations are essential to fortify the observed associations and develop nuanced understanding and recommendations based on robust evidence.
Until then, the overarching benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets, particularly their roles in reducing heart disease risks and promoting holistic well-being, continue to hold significant value.
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