Vegetarians and vegans may be at higher risk of stroke

Switching to veg diets does not seem so beneficial to health: vegetarians and vegans, in addition to the problems they may be subjected to, may be at higher risk of stroke.  

This was the conclusion of a study recently published in the authoritative medical journal the BMJ, that explains why eating meat is so important. It is the first research ever examining the risk of stroke in people following plant-based diets. The results show that vegetarians and vegans have a 20% higher risk of stroke compared to those who eat meat, especially hemorrhagic stroke, caused when an artery’s blood starts to go out and spread in the brain.

#Vegetarians and #vegans have a 20% higher risk of #stroke compared to those who eat #meat. Click To Tweet

The exact reasons for this higher risk are not clear, but it could be caused by too low levels of cholesterol and some nutrients, as explained by the researcher who led the study, Tammy Tong, a nutritional epidemiologist at the Department of Health of the Population in Nuffield, University of Oxford: “There is some evidence which suggest that too low cholesterol levels and some nutrients deficiencies, like vitamin B12, may be linked to a higher risk of hemorrhagic stroke”.

The study that led to these conclusions was conducted on a very large and representative panel of the population: 48.188 people in the United Kingdom with an average age of 45, grouped in meat eaters (24.428), pescetarians (7.506) and vegetarians, including vegans (16.254). Participants were tracked on average for 18 years, also taking into account influential factors, such as smoking or physical activity.

The results also showed that fish-eaters do not have a significantly higher rate of stroke, and this may be due to their cholesterol levels not as low as those of vegetarians. It is also unlikely that they are deficient in vitamin B12, since “it is possible to get some B12 from fish and other animal products that they do eat”, explains Tong: “In fact, vegetarians and vegans have a small or non-existent consumption of animal origin products, so the only way they can get B12 is from either supplements or fortified foods”.

On the other hand, vegetarians and vegans recorded a 22% lower risk of coronary heart disease compared to meat eaters, but not so far from pescetarians, which in fact show a 13% lower risk. This is probably because vegans, vegetarians and fish eaters generally have lower BMI and lower rates of hypertension, cholesterol and diabetes. However, the lack of a real advantage to health in eliminating animal origin products from the diet is confirmed.

Although vegetarians have had better overall cardiovascular health outcomes, this study suggests that taking up a vegetarian diet may not be universally beneficial for all health outcomes. Click To Tweet

As Stephen Burgess, head of the University of Cambridge‘s Biostatistics Unit explains: “Although vegetarians have had better overall cardiovascular health outcomes, this study suggests that taking up a vegetarian diet may not be universally beneficial for all health outcomes.”

However, further research is needed in this area: “Whilst this is an interesting finding, this study is observational and doesn’t provide us with enough evidence, so more research in this area would be needed. Additional studies in other large scale cohorts with a high proportion of non-meat eaters are needed to confirm the generalizability of these results and assess their relevance for clinical practice and public health”, concludes Tong.

What is clear is that giving up meat totally does not seem to bring real and concrete health benefits. On the contrary, the lack of fundamental nutrients generates high risks that should not be underestimated, reaffirming the importance of a diet that includes everything, including meat and fish.

The "Sustainable Meats" Project aims to identify the key topics, the state of knowledge and the most recent technical scientific trends, with the aim of showing that meat production and consumption can be sustainable, both for health and for the environment.