A Vegetarian Diet and Stroke

Are vegetarians healthier than meat eaters?

What about stroke?

Stroke greatly increases your risk of serious mental and physical disability. A 2016 report from the EPIC-Oxford study in the UK did not show a significant link between vegetarianism and death due to stroke. But a 2019 update of the EPIC-Oxford study of 48,188 participants showed that vegetarians had a 20 percent higher risk of having a stroke compared to meat eaters over an average follow-up of 14 years. For every 100 persons over a 10-year period, the vegetarians would have three more cases of stroke than the meat eaters. Thus, vegetarians showed a small absolute increase in stroke relative to meat eaters.

Bu consider this: The same study found that vegetarians and fish eaters had a 13 percent lower risk of ischemic heart disease (caused by a blood clot in the heart). Curiously, other research shows that hypertension poses for highest risk of stroke. Yet in the 2019 EPIC-Oxford study, vegetarians had twice the incidence of hypertension than the meat eaters. This study illustrates the potential pitfalls of ascribing “healthy” or “unhealthy” to any particular approach to eating.

It’s not always easy to decide if a particular food or way of eating is healthful or not. For example, the2019 Oxford-EPIC study cited above found a higher risk of stroke for vegetarians compared to meat eaters. But a new study found a dramatically different result. A team of researchers in Taiwan studied 13,342 Buddhists in two cohorts. Participants in the first cohort came to a Buddhist hospital for routine health examinations, while participants in the second cohort came from across Taiwan. Most were Tzu Chi volunteers who commit themselves to community service following a two-year training program. Most of the participants in both cohorts abstained from smoking and alcohol.

Vegetarians in the first cohort had better health indicators than non-vegetarians. During an average follow-up of 10 years, vegetarians in the first cohort had a 74 percent lower risk of ischemic stroke (a blood clot in the brain) compared to non-vegetarians. Participants in the second cohort had a 48 percent lower risk of ischemic and hemorrhagic (a broken blood vessel in the brain) stroke combined. Oddly, vegetarians who consumed less than the than the recommended daily allowance of vitamin B 12 had lower risk of overall stroke than non-vegetarians or vegetarians who got more than the recommended daily allowance.

What might account for the different results for the Buddhist study and the Oxford-EPIC study? The British participants consumed much more alcohol (which the 2019 Oxford-EPIC study linked to higher risk of stroke) and smoked more than the Buddhist participants. Perhaps these and other unhealthy habits overshadowed the positive effects of vegetarianism. On the other hand, UK participants ate more onions and related plants, which are commonly regarded as healthful. It’s not clear if being a vegetarian affects the risk of stroke for Americans.

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