Question: What do Betty White, Mike Tyson, Ellen DeGeneres, and Robin Williams have in common?
Answer: Their diets put them at risk for heart disease and stroke!
You see, all of them are vegans – vegetarians who eat no animal products. This is a popular way to eat today. However, many vegans don’t realize this diet could kill them.
A recent study at Science Daily News (Science Daily, Feb. 15, 2011) has caused quite a stir lately. It is a brief summary from a scientific journal called the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The study was, actually, a review of dozens of articles published on the biochemistry of vegetarianism during the past 30 years – so there is a lot of input here.
The article reads, “Vegans’ Elevated Heart Risk Requires Omega-3s and B12, Study Suggests. People who follow a vegan lifestyle – strict vegetarians who try to eat no meat or animal products of any kind — may increase their risk of developing blood clots and atherosclerosis or ‘hardening of the arteries,’ which are conditions that can lead to heart attacks and stroke. That’s the conclusion of a review of dozens of articles published on the biochemistry of vegetarianism during the past 30 years.”
Balance! – The Problem with Many Studies
The title, while eye catching, is a little misleading. It suggests that vegans have an elevated risk for heart disease. However, there is abundant evidence that vegans live longer and have less heart disease than non-vegans. In addition, vegans live longer than vegetarians. The thought being that dairy products are often high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt.
The problem with most studies comparing vegans and regular diet people is that they do not take into account the abuses some people have that throw the stats off.
There are two major tendencies that throw the stats off:
1. Vegans and vegetarians tend to be more conscious of eating better – with less junk food involved.
2. Many regular diet people abuse the bad fats and sugars involved in our commercial world.
It is difficult to design a study where regular diet people who do not abuse the so easily available junk foods! Since our bodies have developed with a diet of both animal and veggie products, it makes most sense that the healthiest balance is a balance of both areas. (Spiritual views are a separate issue than the physical health considerations of this article.)
“Lower-risk” vegans may not be immune.
While a balanced vegetarian diet can provide enough protein, this isn’t always the case when it comes to fat and fatty acids. As a result, vegans tend to have elevated blood levels of homocysteines and decreased levels of HDL, the “good” form of cholesterol. Both are risk factors for heart disease.
Their diets tend to be lacking several key nutrients – including iron, zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fatty acids. (The founder of the American Vegan Society, Jay Dinshah, died of heart disease at age 66. He did not know about the importance of omega-3 fatty acids.) The conclusion of the researchers: People who eat a vegan diet increase their risk of developing blood clots and atherosclerosis or “hardening of the arteries.” These conditions can lead to heart attacks and stroke.
Can you be a healthy vegan? Without a doubt! The study concludes that there is a strong scientific basis for vegetarians and vegans to increase their dietary omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 to help contend with those risks. Most know that a pure vegan diet does lack vitamin B12 – best known as being necessary for the nervous system. It is not widely known that it also helps the heart. At one time, some of the first vegans developed serious damage to their nervous systems after several years because their diet lacked vitamin B12 – which is only found naturally in animal foods and dirt. (Taking B12 supplements is probably the better option.)
So, to be a healthy vegan, (in addition to making sure of your balanced protein intake) increase your daily intake of dietary omega-3 fatty acids. vitamin B12 (and a little zinc – but a good multivitamin, like our recommended Foundation, will have that, and more).
Good sources of omega-3s include salmon and other oily fish. This won’t work for most vegans, but there are two other answers. Vegetarians or vegans who eat nuts have much lower risks of heart disease, largely because of the omega-3 fatty acids found in nuts. You can also eat flaxseeds, walnuts, and other nuts every day. For those more flexible, eggs, dairy and milk from contented cows, as well as supplements can also supply these nutrients.
(One of the best studies is covered in our “An Excellent Study of Vegetarianism” article.)