Written on March 26, 2008
Science Tuesday is running a day behind this week, but better late than never. Those of you who know me will realize how difficult it is for me to report this research. I am a carnivore. I find any meal that lacks a large flesh component as unsatisfying. I am extremely suspicious of people who chose a vegan lifestyle. But science is science and requires that I leave my prejudices at the gate. So, this week when BioMed Central featured a study on the effects of a vegan diet on rheumatoid arthrititis I felt duty bound to pass it on.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system turns on the body’s joints. It is a disabling and painful inflammatory condition, which can result in an increased risk in cardiovascular disease. RA is incurable and its causes are unclear, although there are a number of plausible theories.
Suffererers of RA tend to display abnormal lipoprotein (cholesterol and trigylceride) levels, which is often associated with disease symptoms. Bearing this in mind, a Swedish research group hypothesized that dietary changes, particularly those that would restrict intake of saturated fats, that regulate the levels of these lipoproteins may be part of an effective treatment for RA. Led by Johan Frostegard of the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, they randomly assigned (sentenced) volunteers to either a vegan, gluten free diet or a well-balanced normal diet for a year. Both diets were composed of roughly the same ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fat with the only major difference being the lack of animal and wheat products in the vegan diet. The researchers then analyzed blood lipid levels after both three months and a year.
First, it’s amusing that about one quarter of the patients that found themselves involuntary vegans quit the study before the three month time point. That would have been me. But for those that struggled through, the Swedish group found that a vegan diet induced decreases in total cholesterol, body mass index and in the ratio of LDL:HDL cholesterol. These changes in lipoprotein profile are more similar to those seen in healthy, non-RA individuals.
Frostegard’s group concludes that a gluten-free vegan diet are potentially anti-inflammatory and protective against RA. What they do not show is any alleviation of RA symptoms – probably the bigger issue for the patients. However, the biggest problem with this study is that it gives vegans, who already think that they’re saving the planet and all its fauna, something else to be smug about. Nonetheless, the results are compelling as the only difference between the two diets was in the amount of saturated fat. Dietary changes alone are probably not an effective treatment for rheumatoid arthritis, but the changes in lipoprotein levels that they can induce are certainly not going to hurt.
I wonder if the researchers are vegans? Ah well, never mind, all this talk about foot has made me hungry and it’s nearly lunch – today it’s that great British dish bangers and mash.
Filed in: Science.