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The Diet Wars, as always, are in full effect.
As a former eight-year vegan who now eats a (mostly) animal product-based diet, I’ve been on all sides and everywhere in between.
So my vantage point is a pretty unique one and one which I enjoy.
But at the end of the day, what matters is the truth. Hopefully, the scientific community can help us out in reaching that truth, so we’re looking at the studies.
In this case, we have some information on vegetarian-styled diets.
Researchers out of Verona, Italy compared the total plasma homocysteine (tHcy) in two vegetarian-styled diets: lacto-ovo vegetarian (diet includes dairy and eggs) and vegan. Their study subjects, small in number, included 31 vegans with a mean age of 45.8 +\- 15.8 years and 14 lacto-ovo vegetarians, with a mean age of 48.5 +\- 14.5 years.
To ensure lifestyle factors and consistency of diet were accounted for, the researchers limited test subjects to those who had been following their diets for a minimum of five years. None of them smoked, took oral contraceptives, postmenopausal hormones, or consumed large amounts of caffeine or alcohol. Most of the subjects also engaged in moderate physical activity.
What is homocysteine and why does it matter?
Homocysteine is an amino acid that has been found in epidemiological studies to be associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease when abnormally high (hyperhomocysteinemia). The researchers wanted to find out if vegetarian diets have any effect on this factor.
The researchers found homocysteine levels to be significantly higher not only in vegetarians compared to control subjects, they also found it to be significantly higher is vegetarians who did not take vitamin supplements versus vegetarians who do.
This could lend credence to an oft-criticized aspect of vegetarianism – that the diet does not naturally supply all the necessary nutrients for proper health and must be supplemented in order to be effective.
Most concerning however were the observed levels of hyperhomocysteinemia in vegetarians compared to the control. There was a significant difference between the two, to the tune of 53.3% in the vegetarian group to 10.3% in the control.
Moreover, the effect was more drastic among the vegetarians who did not take nutritional supplements. That group checked in at 61% whereas their vegetarian counterparts who did supplement their diet came in at 22%, still much higher than the control.
For those wondering, levels of homocysteine and hyperhomocysteinemia were higher in vegans than lacto-ovo vegetarians, although not significantly.
First of all, we need to acknowledge the small sample size of this study. Much larger studies are needed to corroborate its results.
With that said, it seems advisable that those on vegan and/or vegetarian diets be very mindful of their vitamin/nutrient intake due to the differences found between those who took supplements versus those who did not. It is very important to first address any deficiencies in the diet when determining what diet is best for you.
Secondly, even though there has been found an increased risk of cardiovascular disease among those with hyperhomocysteinemia and vegetarians in this study had much higher levels, other studies have found vegetarians to exhibit less morbidity and mortality due to cardiovascular disease than non-vegetarians.
What accounts for this apparent discrepancy?
Is the sample size of this study too small? Possibly.
Is this an opportunity for vegetarians to recognize a deficiency (possibly B12, which was found to be much lower in the study’s vegetarian subjects)? And once recognizing this deficiency, resolving it to more greatly reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease?
These are open-ended questions that more studies can help us find the answers to. In the meantime, it’s important to ask them. This might be something to look into with your licensed health care practitioner.
(Remember, these findings are presented for informational purposes only. Always consult with your licensed health care practitioner before making any changes to dietary or health care programs.)
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