Vegetarian Eating Lowers Stroke Risk

vegetarian pasta salad
Ina Peters/Stocksy United

Stroke prevention is based on long-term daily habits, particularly healthy eating, regular exercise, and avoiding smoking. Many of us have heard that vegetarian or vegan diets are healthy. But is vegetarian eating the best way to prevent diseases such as stroke?

A stroke is a major life event that is caused by vascular disease. An unhealthy diet is certainly a huge contributor to vascular disease. So it is worthwhile to understand whether a vegetarian or a vegan approach to eating is the right way to prevent a stroke.

And researchers have put this question to the test, with some interesting results.

What Is a Vegetarian Diet?

Simply put, a vegetarian does not eat meat. But a vegetarian approach to eating does not necessarily fall under a narrow definition, as there are many different variations of vegetarianism.

A vegan does not eat meat or any animal products. A pescetarian does not eat meat, but eats fish, and may or may not exclude certain animal products. And most vegetarians select a consistent system regarding the incorporation of dairy products, eggs, whey (a dairy product), and gelatin (an animal product).

Some people who consider vegetarianism to be healthy might not go completely vegetarian, but instead adopt a partially vegetarian diet by cutting back on meat or dairy or eggs, but not eliminating them completely. And others periodically fast, eliminating certain foods from the diet for defined periods of time, and then resuming those items.

 

Overall, there is such a variety to vegetarian and vegan systems of eating that even the most reliable scientific studies that are designed to measure the health outcomes of vegetarianism admit to the lack of uniformity among participants. Nevertheless, we do have strong data about the relationship between vegetarian eating and stroke.

Does a Vegetarian Diet Prevent Stroke? 

It turns out that study after study shows that vegetarians have a lower risk of stroke and better overall health than non-vegetarians. There are no reliable comparisons between vegetarians, vegans, and pescetarians, as they are all lumped together as non-meat eaters. And eating seafood has been strongly linked with stroke prevention.

There are a number of explanations for the association between vegetarian diet and lower rates of stroke. 

Lower blood levels of fat and cholesterol among vegetarians
First and foremost, lower blood lipid and cholesterol levels are noted among vegetarians. While dietary cholesterol is not believed to be as dangerous as it once was, vegetarians generally have a lower intake of all types of fats and cholesterol, as well as lower measurable blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides than people who regularly consume meat. This is one of several outcomes that study authors report among vegetarian participants. 

Lower rates of obesity among vegetarians
Another trend among vegetarians is a significant lack of obesity.

A BMI above 30 is highly correlated with an elevated stroke risk. Often, vegetarians intentionally consume fewer calories than meat eaters. The lower rate of obesity is a result of this deliberately lower caloric intake as well as the inherently lower caloric content of most vegetarian foods. 

Nutritional variety in vegetarian diet
The nutritional composition of a vegetarian diet is generally more varied than that of a non-vegetarian diet, usually including a wider range of vitamins and minerals that are found in fresh food. A diversity of fruits, vegetables and whole grains provide a number of stroke-fighting nutrients such as fiber and cysteine. While not the rule among meat eaters, non-vegetarians generally do not consume as many different types of fresh fruits and vegetables as vegetarians.

Abundance of antioxidants in vegetarian diet
Antioxidants are natural components of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, and fish. A diet rich in these types of foods is high in antioxidants. The disease-fighting action of antioxidants is well documented in scientific literature, as antioxidants protect against stroke, heart disease, and cancer. There has not been any harm or danger of overdose discovered so far when it comes to antioxidants. Certainly, vegetarians do not have exclusive proprietorship over antioxidants, because meat eaters can and do consume fresh fruits, vegetables, and nuts. But, in general, a vegetarian diet inherently provides a greater percentage of antioxidant-rich foods in the diet.

Can a Vegetarian Diet Contribute to Stroke?

As with every diet, there is no magic bullet, and moderation is key. It turns out that some vegetarians can have an increased stroke risk specifically as a result of the vegetarian diet. Here is why.

Vegetarian does not always mean "healthy"
It is important to note that a vegetarian diet "usually" consists of more fresh food and vitamins and minerals, but not always. It is possible to be vegetarian and primarily consume simple carbohydrates  while skipping nutrient-rich whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

Trans fats
Cutting out meat or cutting down on meat consumption usually results in weight loss and lower cholesterol and fat levels. Trans fats, the type of fats that are most strongly linked to diseases such as stroke and cancer, are found in processed foods and deep-fried foods, whether the food is meat, dairy or vegan. Therefore it is important to understand that vegetarian does not always equal "low fat" or even "healthy fat."

Vitamin deficiency
Overall, vegetarians have a very high likelihood of developing vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is an important nutrient present in meat and other animal products. Vitamin B12 deficiency contributes to the development arterial disease and anemia, both of which lead to stroke. 

Going to extremes 
Excessive "health consciousness" can result in serious medical problems. Vitamin overdoses can trigger stroke and other types of brain damage. Extreme "cleansing" can cause water intoxication. And becoming underweight, which is another byproduct of strict vegetarianism, is linked to a higher risk of stroke death.

A Word From Verywell

A vegetarian diet is associated with a lower risk of stroke as well as the reduction of a number of other conditions, such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. However, there are other ways to eat healthy, and a vegetarian diet is not the only way. A key component of eating for disease prevention is about getting the right amount of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and calories while avoiding preservatives, trans fats, excessive intake of saturated fats, and leaning towards fresh food rather than processed food. 

It can be a challenge to transition to healthy eating. You can adopt healthy eating habits to make it easier.

Sources:

Pawlak R. Is vitamin B12 deficiency a risk factor for cardiovascular disease in vegetarians? American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2015;48(6):e11-26.

​Pilis W, Stec K, Zych M, Pilis A. Health benefits and risk associated with adopting a vegetarian dietRoczniki Państwowego Zakładu Higieny. 2014;65(1):9-14.

Shiue I, Arima H, Hankey GJ, Anderson CS. Dietary intake of key nutrients and subarachnoid hemorrhage: a population-based case-control study in AustralasiaCerebrovascular Disease. 2011;31(5):464-70.

Continue Reading