A Diet To Die For

Which Diet Is Best? 

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Heart AttackMany clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet. For example, we have been told:

  • Saturated and trans fats are bad for us and monounsaturated and omega-3 fats are good for us.
  • Sugar and refined carbohydrates are bad for us, but complex carbohydrates are good for us.

However, we don’t eat saturated fats or sugars in isolation. They are part of a diet with many other foods. Do other foods in our diet affect the risks we associate with saturated fat or sugar? We don’t know.

Simply put, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. We don’t eat saturated fats, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study (JM Shikany et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10:e019158, 2021) did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that one of the diets significantly increases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • Another diet significantly decreases your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

You are probably wondering, “What were the diets?”; “Which diet is best?”; and “Which diet is worst?” I cover that below, but first we should look at how the study was designed.

How Was The Study Designed?

Clinical StudyThe study involved 21,069 participants in the REGARDS (Reasons for Geographical and Racial Differences in Stroke) clinical trial who were followed for an average of 10 years. This clinical trial enrolled:

  • 30% of its participants from what is called the “the stroke belt” (North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana).
  • 20% of its participants from what is called “the stroke buckle” (the coastal plain of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia).
  • 50% of its participants from elsewhere in the continental United States.

At the beginning of the study, participants were given a medical exam and filled out an extensive questionnaire on diet.

Based on the diet analysis, the participants were ranked for adherence to six dietary patterns.

#1: The Convenience Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on pre-packaged or restaurant meals, pasta dishes, pizza, Mexican food, and Chinese food.

#2: The Plant-Based Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt.

#3: The Sweets Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added sugars, desserts, chocolate, candy, and sweetened breakfast foods.

#4: The Southern Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on added fats, fried food, eggs and egg dishes, organ meats, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages.

#5: The Alcohol and Salad Pattern. This dietary pattern relied heavily on beer, wine, liquor, green leafy vegetables, tomatoes, and salad dressing.

#6: The Mediterranean Pattern. Adherence to the Mediterranean dietary pattern was based on the well-established Mediterranean Diet Score.

  • Points are added for beneficial foods (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grain cereals, nuts, and fish).
  • Points are subtracted for detrimental foods (meat and dairy).
  • Points are added for a high ratio of monounsaturated fats to saturated fats (think diets rich in olive oil).
  • One point is added for moderate alcohol consumption, Zero or excess alcohol consumption is assigned 0 points.

The study looked at the correlation of these dietary patterns with the incidence of sudden cardiac death during the 10-year study.

A Diet To Die For

deadThe results were striking.

  • The Southern Diet increased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 2.2-fold. Basically, it doubled the risk.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2.3-fold.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Southern Diet increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 2-fold.
  • The Mediterranean Diet decreased the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death 41%.
    • In people with no previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 51%. Basically, it cut the risk in half.
    • In people with a previous history of heart disease at the beginning of the 10-year study, the Mediterranean Diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 23%, but that decrease was not statistically significant.
  • None of the other diets had a significant effect on the 10-year risk of sudden cardiac death.

In the words of the authors, “We identified a trend towards an inverse association of the Mediterranean diet score and a positive association of adherence to the Southern dietary pattern with risk of sudden cardiac death.” [That is a fancy way of saying the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death, and the Southern dietary pattern increased the risk of sudden cardiac death.]

Which Diet Is Best?

AwardThe Mediterranean Diet Is Best: In this analysis of the effects of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death, it is obvious that the Mediterranean diet is best. It cut the risk of sudden cardiac death in half.

This should come as no surprise:

  • I have reported on a previous study showing that the Mediterranean diet decreases the risk of heart disease by 47%.
  • In the Woman’s Health Study the Mediterranean diet decreased the risk of sudden cardiac death by 36%.
  • In the Nurses’ Health Study there was an inverse association between the Mediterranean Diet Score and sudden cardiac death.

The Southern Dietary Pattern Was Worst. It doubled the risk of sudden cardiac death. As someone who grew up in the South, this comes as no surprise to me. Let me count the ways:

  • It starts with a breakfast of fried eggs, grits with “red-eye gravy” (a mixture of ham drippings and coffee), ham or sausage, and biscuits made with lots of lard and sugar.
  • When I was growing up, a snack might be an RC cola and moon pies (look that one up).
  • Dinner might be fried chicken and hushpuppies or fried fish and hushpuppies.
  • Instead of picnics we have pig pickins (which is pretty much what it sounds like).
  • And we boil our vegetables with fatback (pig fat) and sugar.

I could go on, but you get the picture. Don’t get me wrong, I have fond memories of the foods I ate while growing up in the South. I just don’t eat them much anymore.

Why Didn’t The Plant-Based Dietary Pattern Score Better? One of the surprises from this study was that the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern didn’t score better. After all, numerous studies have shown that mostly plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease. Why did it strike out in this study?Vegan Foods

My feeling is that the study did not adequately describe a true Plant-Based Dietary Pattern. As I described above, participants following the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern were identified as having above average consumption of vegetables, fruits, fruit juice, cereal, beans, fish, poultry, and yogurt compared to others in this study. I have two concerns with this classification.

  • As described, this is a semi-vegetarian diet, while the best results for reducing heart disease risk are seen with strict vegetarian and lacto-ovo-vegetarian diets.
  • However, my biggest concern is that we don’t know what other foods they were consuming. Were they also consuming convenience foods? Were they consuming sweets? We don’t know.

That is very different from the two dietary patterns that stood out in this study.

  • 50% of the participants in this study came the Southeastern region of the United States. So, when the study identified participants as following a Southern Dietary Pattern based on a few southern foods, it is likely that those participants ate many other southern foods as well.

If 50% of the participants in the study had come from the Loma Linda area of California where vegetarianism is much more common, the study might have done a better job of identifying participants consuming a plant-based diet.

  • While participants consuming the Mediterranean diet were more scattered geographically, the Mediterranean Diet Score used to identify people consuming a Mediterranean diet is much more detailed and has been validated in numerous previous studies.

In short, the Southern and Mediterranean Dietary Patterns may have stood out in this study because they provided a more precise distinction between those consuming a Southern or Mediterranean diet and those following other dietary patterns. If the Plant-Based Dietary Pattern had been more precisely described, it might have shown a statistically significant benefit as well.

The Bottom Line

Many clinical studies focus on the benefits or risks associated with individual components of our diet.

However, we don’t eat foods, we eat diets. It would be more helpful for the average person if research focused on which diets are good and bad for us instead of which foods are good and bad for us.

One recent study did just that. It evaluated the effect of 6 different dietary patterns on the risk of sudden cardiac death (dropping dead from a stroke or heart attack).

  • It turns out that the Southern diet doubles your risk of sudden cardiac death. I call that one, “A diet to die for”.
  • In contrast, the Mediterranean diet cuts your risk of sudden cardiac death in half. I call that one, “A diet to live for”.
  • The other diets had no significant effect on the risk of sudden cardiac death.

For more details on the study, why the Southern diet is so bad for us, and why the Mediterranean diet is so good for us, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

What Is The Truth About Eating Eggs And Heart Disease?

Have The Dangers Of Eggs Been “Eggagerated”?

egg confusionIt’s no wonder you are confused about whether or not eggs are good for you. The advice you have been given about eggs over the years has been constantly changing.

Eggs are an affordable source of high-quality protein, iron, unsaturated fats, phospholipids like lecithin and choline, and carotenoids. That almost qualifies them as a health food. However, they are also a major source of cholesterol in the American diet. Back when we thought of dietary cholesterol was bad for us, that made eggs the enemy.

Then we discovered that dietary cholesterol has relatively little effect on blood cholesterol levels. It was obesity plus saturated fat and sugar in our diet that raised blood cholesterol levels and increased our risk of heart disease.

Then several studies reported that eggs did not increase our risk of heart disease. A study out of China even found that eggs decreased the risk of heart attack and hemorrhagic stroke. Suddenly, eggs became our best friend.

That only lasted a few years until a study from the United States reported that eggs increased your risk of heart disease, and a study from Europe reported that eggs increased your risk of hemorrhagic stroke. Eggfusion (egg confusion) reigned.

Most of these studies were large studies. They followed their participants for 5-10 years. Why were their results so confusing? A careful analysis of the studies shows that most of them suffered from three major weaknesses.

  • They only measured egg consumption at the beginning of the study. This fails to account for the fact that egg consumption has waxed and waned over the years as eggs have gone from enemy to friend and back to enemy.
  • They did not assess how the overall diet influences the effect of egg consumption on heart disease. If we believe the previous studies, eggs lower the risk of heart disease and hemorrhagic stroke in China and increase the risk of both in the United States and Europe. This suggests that overall diet is important, but this hypothesis has not been tested.
  • They also did not address the question of whether eggs, because of their cholesterol, might have a more adverse effect on heart disease in individuals who already have high blood cholesterol and have difficulty controlling their cholesterol levels.

That is why the study (JP Drouin-Chartier et al, British Medical Journal, 368:m513, 2020) I am reporting on today is so important. It is a huge study, much larger than any previous study on the topic. Plus, it was designed in such a way that it had none of the weaknesses of previous studies.

How Was The Study Done?

Clinical StudyThis study started by combining the data from three major clinical trials:

  • The first Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1980 to 2012,
  • The second Nurse’s Health Study, which ran from 1991-2013, and
  • The Health Professional’s Follow-Up Study, which ran from 1986-2012.

These studies combined enrolled 173,563 women and 42,055 men and followed them for an average of 32 years. All the participants were free of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer at the time they were enrolled. The design of these studies was extraordinary.

  • A detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered every 2-4 years. This allowed the investigators to calculate cumulative averages of all dietary variables, including egg intake. This assured that the effects of egg consumption and diet represented the participant’s diet over the 32-year duration of the study.
  • Participants also filled out questionnaires that captured information on disease diagnosis, disease risk factors, medicines taken, weight, and lifestyle characteristics every 2 years with follow-up rates >90%. This allowed the investigators to measure the onset of disease and medicine use for each participant during the study. More importantly, 32 years is long enough to measure the onset of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer – diseases that require decades to develop.
  • The endpoint of the study was “incident heart disease”, which the investigators defined as non-fatal heart attack, death from heart disease, and fatal and non-fatal stroke. During this study, 14,806 participants developed incident heart disease. This was a large enough number for a detailed statistical analysis of the data.
  • For example, statistical analysis showed that the participants with the highest egg intake also were more likely to be obese and more likely to consume red meat, bacon and other processed meats, refined grains, French fries, and sugar-sweetened beverages. These are what we refer to as “confounding variables” because they also increase the risk of heart disease and are likely to confound (confuse) the analysis. Therefore, the investigators statistically corrected the data on egg consumption for these confounding variables. Many previous studies did not have the data or statistical power to correct their egg consumption data for these confounding variables.

In short, this study was much larger, ran far longer, and was better designed that any of the previous studies on egg consumption and heart disease risk. However, the authors did not stop there. They also performed a meta-analysis of 28 previous studies with a total of 1,720,108 participants and 139,195 cardiovascular disease events.

The only weakness in this study is that only 2% of the participants ate more than one egg per day. Consequently, it cannot address the health consequences of eating more than one egg per day on a regular basis.

Before sharing the results of this study with you, I need to provide some background about how our bodies regulate blood cholesterol levels. So, let’s move on to my favorite topic, “Biochemistry 101”.

Biochemistry 101: Cholesterol Metabolism

ProfessorMost people think of cholesterol only as a bad thing – something that can kill us. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, cholesterol is essential for life.

  • Our body makes vitamin D and coenzyme Q10 from cholesterol.
  • Our body makes steroid hormones such as cortisol, estrogen, and testosterone from cholesterol.
  • Cholesterol is a vital component of the myelin sheath that coats our nerve cells.
  • And that is just the beginning.

Because cholesterol is essential, our body makes its own cholesterol and has an elegant control system that keeps our blood cholesterol levels right where they should be.

  • When we get lots of cholesterol from our diet, our body makes less and excretes any excess.
  • When we get little cholesterol from our diet, our body makes more and excretes less.

Unfortunately, many Americans muck up this elegant control system. There are several factors that can throw our body’s ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels out of whack, leading to elevated blood cholesterol levels and increased risk of heart disease. For example:

  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Diets high in saturated fats
  • Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates
  • Genetics

And it’s not just elevated cholesterol that is the problem. These same factors are associated with inflammation, which also increases the risk of heart disease.

Of course, we can’t do anything about our genetics, but the other factors are under our control. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at the results of this study.

What Is The Truth About Eating Eggs And Heart Disease?

the truth signWhen the investigators looked at their combined data from the Nurse’s Health Studies and the Health Professional’s Study:

  • There was no difference in heart disease outcomes for participants consuming an average of one egg/day and participants consuming less than one egg/month.
  • When the investigators examined heart attack and stroke separately, there was no difference in either outcome for participants consuming an average of one egg/day and participants consuming less than one egg/month.
  • As mentioned above the participants who consumed the most eggs weighed more; were less physically active; were more likely to be current smokers; and were more likely to consume red meat, processed meats, refined grains, potatoes (think French fries and potato chips), full fat milk, and sugar-sweetened beverages.
    • Without correcting for these factors eating one egg/day resulted in a 10% increase in heart disease risk.
    • After correcting for these factors, eating one egg/day resulted in a 7% decrease in heart disease risk.
    • In both cases the differences were statistically non-significant. However, they were in line with the previous studies mentioned above.

When they looked at the data generated by their meta-analysis of 28 studies:

  • There was no association between heart disease risk and egg consumption.
    • In Asian countries where the diet was primarily unrefined, plant-based foods, egg consumption decreased heart disease risk.
    • In people with type 2 diabetes, egg consumption increased heart disease risk.

The authors concluded “…moderate egg consumption (up to one egg/day) is not associated with cardiovascular disease risk overall, and is associated with potentially lower cardiovascular disease risk in Asian populations.”

The authors also noted that their data did not allow them to evaluate the effect of consuming more than one egg/day.

Have The Dangers Of Eggs Been “Eggagerated”?

are eggs good for youThis study clears up a lot of confusion about egg consumption and heart disease risk. The problem is that the scientific and medical communities have been looking for a “one size fits all” recommendation about egg consumption. This study shows us that the reality is much more complicated. Let me describe my interpretation of the data.

I think the results of this and previous studies are best described by the phrase, Eggs are a healthy part of a healthy diet. Here is what I mean by that.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, your body is fully able to regulate your blood cholesterol levels. Then, you can reap the full benefits of the egg, namely the protein, iron, unsaturated fats, lecithin, choline, and carotenoids it provides. Under these conditions, eating up to one egg/day reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains primarily chicken or fish and unprocessed plant foods, egg consumption is neutral. It neither increases nor decreases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats, high fat dairy products, refined grains, and junk foods (ie, the typical American diet), your body is no longer able to regulate blood cholesterol levels well. Now the cholesterol content of eggs becomes an issue and consuming one egg/day slightly increases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are overweight and have developed type 2 diabetes, your body has become insulin resistant. This also interferes with your body’s ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels. In this situation, consuming one egg/day also increases your risk of heart disease.

The caveat is, of course, that these conclusions are based averages, and none of us are average.

The Bottom Line

You are probably aware that the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk is controversial. Some studies report that egg consumption has no effect on heart disease risk. Other studies report egg consumption decreases heart disease risk. Still other studies report that egg consumption increases heart disease risk. No wonder you are confused.

A recent study has cleared up much of the confusion. This was not just another study. This study was much larger, ran far longer, and was better designed that any of the previous studies.

If you look at this and previous studies, it becomes clear that the effect of egg consumption on heart disease risk is strongly influenced by your overall diet and lifestyle.

  • If you are consuming a primarily plant-based diet, your body is fully able to regulate your blood cholesterol levels. Then, you can reap the full benefits of the egg, namely the protein, iron, unsaturated fats, lecithin, choline, and carotenoids it provides. Under these conditions, eating up to one egg/day reduces your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains primarily chicken or fish and unprocessed plant foods, egg consumption is neutral. It neither increases nor decreases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are consuming a diet that contains sugar-sweetened beverages, red and processed meats, high fat dairy products, refined grains, and junk foods (ie, the typical American diet), your body is no longer able to regulate blood cholesterol levels well. Now the cholesterol content of eggs becomes an issue and consuming one egg/day slightly increases your risk of heart disease.
  • If you are overweight and have developed type 2 diabetes, your body has become insulin resistant. This also interferes with your body’s ability to regulate blood cholesterol levels. In this situation, consuming one egg/day also increases your risk of heart disease.

In short, eggs are a healthy part of a healthy diet.

For more details, read the article above. You may also want to read the section “Biochemistry 101: Cholesterol Metabolism” to gain a better understanding of the mechanism behind these statements.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease

Do Vegetarians Have A Higher Risk Of Stroke?

What Are The Benefits And Risks Of A Vegetarian Diet?

Vegetarian FoodsVegetarian diets are thought to be very healthy. Clinical studies show that vegetarian diets are associated with decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and much more. What’s not to like?

That’s why the recent headlines claiming that vegetarian diets may increase the risk of stroke were so surprising. Advocates of meat-heavy diets like the Paleo and Keto diets were overjoyed. These results fit in with their view that we should be eating more meat protein and less plant protein. Nutrition experts, on the other hand, were asking: “What’s going on?” “How can this be?”

Those of you who are regular readers of “Health Tips From the Professor” know that I am an advocate of primarily plant-based diets. Thus, I felt a responsibility to analyze the study (TYN Tong et al, British Medical Journal, 366: 14897, 2019) behind the headlines impartially and give you, my readers, clear guidelines for the healthiest possible diet.

How Was The Study Done?

clinical-studyLet’s start with some background:

·       A major study called the “European Prospective Investigation Into Cancer and Nutrition” (EPIC) has been underway since the early 90’s.

·       The British component of this study is known as the EPIC-Oxford study.

·       While the study has “cancer” in it’s title, it was designed to measure the impact of nutrition on many diseases. In this case, the study focused on heart disease and stroke.

·       Finally, enrollment in the EPIC-Oxford study was designed to give a high proportion of vegetarians in the study population.

The EPIC-Oxford study enrolled 48,188 participants with no previous history of heart disease, stroke, or angina between 1993 and 2001. A detailed diet analysis was performed upon enrollment and again in 2010. Based on these data, the participants were divided into three groups:

1)    Meat eaters (24,428 participants).

2)    Fish eaters (7,506 participants). This group consumed fish but no other meats. People with this eating style are often called pescatarians.

3)    Vegetarians (16, 254 participants). This group consumed dairy and eggs, but no meat. People with this eating style are often called lacto-ovo vegetarians.

4)    The diet analysis also identified participants who were vegans (no animal foods). However, this group was too small to obtain statistically significant comparisons, so they were included with the lacto-ovo vegetarians in the vegetarian group.

Data on heart disease and stroke were obtained from the UK’s health service records through March 31st, 2016. The average time of follow-up for participants in the study was 18.1 years.

Without going into greater detail, this was a very large, well-designed study.

How Did The Diets Of The Three Groups Compare?

balance scaleThe first step in analyzing this study is to ask how the diets of the three groups compared.

Compared to meat eaters, the fish eaters consumed:

·       No meat other than fish.

·       Slightly less milk and significantly more cheese.

·       Slightly more fruits & vegetables.

·       Significantly more legumes & soy foods, nuts & nut butter.

·       Slightly more carbohydrate and slightly less protein.

·       Slightly less saturated fat and slightly more polyunsaturated fat.

·       Around 260 fewer calories per day.

Compared to fish eaters, the vegetarians consumed:

·       No meat.

·       Slightly less milk & cheese.

·       About the same amount of fruits & vegetables.

·       Significantly more legumes & soy foods, nuts & nut butter.

·       Slightly more carbohydrate and slightly less protein.

·       About the same saturated and polyunsaturated fat.

·       Around 125 fewer calories per day.

On average, the vegetarians consumed about 1 cup of milk and one ounce of cheese per day. The fish eaters consumed 1.4 ounces of fish per day.

In terms of comparisons:

·       The biggest differences were between the fish eaters and the meat eaters. It would be fair to say that the fish eaters consumed a primarily plant-based diet with added fish and dairy.

·       The biggest differences between the vegetarians and fish eaters was that the fish eaters got a significant percentage of their protein from fish, while the vegetarians got a significant amount of their protein from plant sources. Otherwise, their diets were fairly comparable.

Finally, the 10-year follow-up diet analysis showed that most participants stuck with their initial diet.

Do Vegetarians Have A Higher Risk Of Stroke?

strokeNow, for the study results:

·       Compared to meat eaters, fish eaters had 13% lower risk of heart disease, and vegetarians had a 22% lower risk of heart disease.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 10 fewer cases of heart disease per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians had a 20% higher risk of stroke, mostly due to an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 3 additional cases of stroke per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       The risk of stroke was essentially identical for fish eaters and meat eaters.

In many other aspects, vegetarians were healthier than meat-eaters. For example, they:

·       Weighed less.

·       Had lower blood pressure.

·       Had lower total and LDL cholesterol.

·       Were less likely to have developed diabetes during the study.

·       Were less likely to have required long-term treatment for other illnesses.

What Are The Strengths And Weaknesses Of The Study?

strengths-weaknessesThe strength of this study is obvious. It was a very large, well-designed study. The study also lasted a long time. Participants in the study were followed for almost 20 years.

There are two clear weaknesses, however:

1)    Numerous previous studies have confirmed that vegetarian diets decrease heart disease risk by about 20%. However, none of those previous studies have reported an increase in stroke risk. This study is an outlier.

2)    There is no clear mechanism that explains why a vegetarian diet might increase stroke risk. Based on previous observations that statin drugs increase the risk of hemorrhagic stroke, the authors suggested the increased stroke risk might be due to lowered LDL cholesterol levels.

This mechanism is speculative at present. Furthermore, if true, it would suggest that any intervention (drug or nutritional) that lowers LDL cholesterol would increase stroke risk.

In the words of the authors:

·       “The present study has shown that British adults who were fish eaters or vegetarians had lower risks of heart disease than meat eaters, but that vegetarians had higher risks of stroke.

·       Future work should include further measurements…to identify which factors may cause the observed associations. [In plain English: We need to understand how vegetarian diets might increase stroke risk before we put too much weight on the results of this study.]

·       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 general health.” [In plain English: More studies are needed to confirm this observation before we start changing our recommendations about what constitutes a healthy diet.]

What Are The Benefits And Risks Of A Vegetarian Diet?

benefits-risksLet’s assume for a minute that the results of this study are accurate and take a closer look at the benefits and risks of a vegetarian diet. Here is my assessment:

1)    This report is troubling, but it may not be correct. The association of vegetarian diets with a slight increase in stroke risk has only been seen in a single study. This study needs to be confirmed before we become too concerned about vegetarianism increasing stroke risk.

2)    On the balance, vegetarian diets should still be considered very healthy. They lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers, inflammatory diseases and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

3)    However, I have often said that we have 5 food groups for a reason, and it is not a good idea to eliminate whole food groups. In the past, I have used that statement to critique diets that leave out important plant food groups like fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

If the data on stroke risk in this study are true, it suggests it might also not be a good idea to leave out meat. However, you don’t need a lot of meat. The fish eaters in this study were consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day. That was enough to eliminate the increased risk of stroke.

4)    In addition, you don’t have to be a vegan purist to enjoy the health benefits of a primarily plant-based diet. As I describe in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths”, primarily plant-based diets ranging from vegan through pescatarian and semi-vegetarian to Mediterranean and DASH are all incredibly healthy.

I personally follow a semi-vegetarian diet but often recommend Mediterranean and DASH diets to others because they are the easiest primarily plant-based diets for the average American to follow.

5)    Finally, if you have a family history, or are at high risk, of stroke, I recommend prudence until we know more. You may wish to adopt a version of primarily plant-based diets that incorporates some meat (That would be in the pescatarian to DASH range of primarily plant-based diets). Your heart will thank you, and you won’t increase your risk of stroke.

The Bottom Line

A recent study enrolled 48,188 British adults; divided them into meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians; followed them for 18.1 years; and looked at their risk for heart disease and stroke. The results were:

·       Compared to meat eaters, fish eaters had 13% lower risk of heart disease, and vegetarians had a 22% lower risk of heart disease.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 10 fewer cases of heart disease per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       Compared to meat eaters, vegetarians had a 20% higher risk of stroke, mostly due to an increased risk for hemorrhagic stroke.

o   For vegetarians this corresponds to 3 additional cases of stroke per 1,000 people over 10 years.

·       The risk of stroke was essentially identical for fish eaters and meat eaters.

Here is my perspective:

1)    This report is troubling, but it may not be correct. The association of vegetarian diets with a slight increase in stroke risk has only been seen in a single study. This study needs to be confirmed before we become too concerned about vegetarianism increasing stroke risk.

2)    On the balance, vegetarian diets should still be considered very healthy. They lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, some cancers, inflammatory diseases and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease.

3)    However, I have often said that we have 5 food groups for a reason, and it is not a good idea to eliminate whole food groups. In the past, I have used that statement to critique diets that leave out important plant food groups like fruit, whole grains, and legumes.

If the data on stroke risk in this study are true, it suggests it might also not be a good idea to leave out meat. However, you don’t need a lot of meat. The fish eaters in this study were consuming 1.4 ounces of fish per day. That was enough to eliminate the increased risk of stroke.

4)    In addition, you don’t have to be a vegan purist to enjoy the health benefits of a primarily plant-based diet. As I describe in my book, “Slaying The Food Myths” (https://slayingthefoodmyths.com), primarily plant-based diets ranging from vegan through pescatarian (the fish eaters in this study) and semi-vegetarian to Mediterranean and DASH are all incredibly healthy.

I personally follow a semi-vegetarian diet but often recommend Mediterranean and DASH diets to others because they are the easiest primarily plant-based diets for the average American to follow.

5)    Finally, if you have a family history, or are at high risk, of stroke, I recommend prudence until we know more. You may wish to adopt a version of primarily plant-based diets that incorporates some meat (That would be in the pescatarian to DASH range of primarily plant-based diets). Your heart will thank you, and you won’t increase your risk of stroke.

For more details on the study and what it means for you, read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor