Vegetarian diet may lower stroke risk by nearly 75 percent, study shows

HUALIEN, Taiwan — Looking for a reason to give a vegetarian diet a try? Here’s one. Researchers from Tzu Chi University in Hualien, Taiwan conclude that people whose diets primarily consist of nuts, vegetables, and soy may have a lower risk of stroke than those who eat meat or fish.

“Stroke is the second most common cause of death worldwide and a leading cause of disability,” says study author Dr. Chin-Lon Lin in a release. “Stroke can also contribute to dementia. If we could reduce the number of strokes by people making changes to their diets, that would have a major impact on overall public health.”

To research this topic, researchers analyzed two groups of people living in Taiwanese Buddhist colonies. Roughly 30% of all participants were vegetarians, and 25% of that group were men. Importantly, however, the research team defined a “vegetarian” for the purposes of this study as someone who eats neither meat nor fish.

Sometimes the lines between vegetarianism and pescatarianism (a vegetarian diet that allows seafood consumption) can blur, due to some pescatarians considering themselves vegetarian. So, it’s an important distinction for the research team to make.

At the beginning of the study, the average participant age was 50 years old, and none had suffered a stroke. One group of 5,050 people was tracked for an average of six years, while the second group (8,302 people) was tracked for an average of nine years.

Preliminary diet surveys and medical examinations were held at the beginning of the study as well. Predictably, those sessions revealed that vegetarian participants typically ate more nuts, vegetables, and soy, as well as less dairy, than their non-vegetarian counterparts. Both groups ate about the same amount of fruit, but vegetarians ate more plant protein and fiber.

With all that dietary data in mind, the research team then examined a national database to see just how many participants ended up experiencing a stroke over the follow-up periods.

Among the first group (5,050 participants; 1,424 vegetarians & 3,626 non-vegetarians), vegetarians suffered only three ischemic strokes. That’s compared to 28 strokes recorded among the non-vegetarians. After adjusting for various other health conditions (age, sex, smoking habits, etc), the authors say that vegetarians in this group were 74% less likely to suffer a stroke.

For the second participant group, a total of 121 strokes occurred. Overall, vegetarians suffered 24 of those strokes while non-vegetarians accounted for the remaining 97. Where there were far more non-vegetarians in general included in this group than vegetarians (5,583 versus 2,719), the study’s authors still conclude that vegetarians were 48% less likely to suffer a stroke (60% lower risk of ischemic stroke, 65% lower risk of hemorrhagic stroke).

“Overall, our study found that a vegetarian diet was beneficial and reduced the risk of ischemic stroke even after adjusting for known risk factors like blood pressure, blood glucose levels and fats in the blood,” Lin concludes. “This could mean that perhaps there is some other protective mechanism that may protecting those who eat a vegetarian diet from stroke.”

Further research on a more diverse population sample would help confirm these findings. Also, this study was somewhat held back by the fact that it only surveyed participants on their diets once at the beginning of the research period.

The study is published in Neurology.

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