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Open Access Science Tuesday, err, Wednesday: Vigorous Vegans

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.


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  1. Comment by KathyF:

    Smug? Moi? I’ll wait and be smug when I outlive the average meat eater by 15 years.

    Meanwhile, I’m off to make some mushroom and spinach pasties. Yummm!

    KathyF’s last blog post..For Comparison’s Sake

    March 26, 2008 @ 5:30 pm
  2. Comment by Not Afraid To Use It:

    OMG the Vegan Insomnia cartoon totally cracked me up.

    As for being smug about outliving meat eater’s by fifteen years, I’ll be happy to die at 85 with a plate of prosciutto and provolone in front of me. Let the Vegans moulder away in a nursing home for the next fifteen years. Unless, of course, they’ve already offed themselves because they couldn’t bear the thought of another day of eating cardboard and grass clippings.

    Not Afraid To Use It’s last blog post..The First Day of the Rest of My Life

    March 26, 2008 @ 5:48 pm
  3. Comment by BusyDad:

    I’ll give the moral high ground to the Vegans. They are doing the world some good. And themselves. I am weak. If what’s on my plate wasn’t running around somewhere at some point in time, I’ll pass.

    BusyDad’s last blog post..Pop Quiz

    March 26, 2008 @ 6:42 pm
  4. Comment by Sinead:

    I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to be vegan is Sweden. My sister has about 5 different dairy products on the table just at breakfast! They have walk in freezers full of dairy products at the supermarket. No wonder a third dropped out!

    March 26, 2008 @ 6:58 pm
  5. Comment by Matthew:

    I heard once that vegans, in general, take in much less calories than normal meat eaters. Is that true?
    It is pretty well established (in model organisms) that a reduced caloric intake increases life spans. So, if the first sentence it true, make me wonder if it is the vegan life style, or reduced caloric intake that causes the changes?

    March 26, 2008 @ 7:10 pm
  6. Comment by KathyF:

    Matthew: That’s true, except I have used the calories I’ve saved to eat cookies. Lots of cookies. And dessert. Puddings, whatever. Check out http://www.wednesdayfoodblogging.com for my chocolate cake recipe I just posted.

    And also alcohol, i.e. wine, the buzz from which I am enjoying at the moment.

    PS: I’m 5’8″ and weigh around 130, only a couple pounds more than I weighed 10 years ago. And I eat lots of cookies.

    KathyF’s last blog post..For Comparison’s Sake

    March 26, 2008 @ 8:03 pm
  7. Comment by Sherrie:

    I have a friend who is a “strict” vegetarian, unless required to partake in “friendship food.” This means that when visiting his German Oma, or anywhere in Asia (where you would think its super easy to eat veggie, except that they act like you committed a crime to deny it) he freely partakes in eating meat.

    I myself get wigged out by veggie talk and like my meat salted and red. Though preferably raised in a humane way so I fell less guilt. I like the idea of being on top of the food chain.

    Sherrie’s last blog post..Test Worked

    March 26, 2008 @ 9:26 pm
  8. Comment by Sherrie:

    And I really ought to re read comments before posting. feel, fell, whatever. 😛

    Sherrie’s last blog post..Test Worked

    March 26, 2008 @ 9:27 pm
  9. Comment by CDV:

    I will definitely give vegans the moral high ground if you give me a steak.

    Matthew, as for your proper scientific question, Frostegard’s group controlled for caloric intake as well. It was actually pretty well done.

    March 26, 2008 @ 11:59 pm
  10. Comment by Jessica K:

    They thought I had Juvenile RA when I was about 5 yrs. old, which was a misdiagnosis (thank goodness), but I still got the holistic treatments until we found out what I really had. Of course it was way before this study, but my mom went to vegetarian (not vegan, though) cooking classes, I took about ten different vitamins and herbs everyday, and drank black cherry juice all the time. I guess maybe the whole foods people know a thing or two, huh?

    On a side note, the first “vegan” I ever met worked at Papa John’s pizza. Ironic, huh?

    Jessica K’s last blog post..Today’s the day

    March 27, 2008 @ 12:36 pm
  11. Comment by Nathan B.:

    Eh, we’re all going to die anyway. Why not take a few animals with you?

    March 27, 2008 @ 3:16 pm
  12. Comment by Maggie:

    Wait, vegans only eat cheese, right? Then I’m a vegan.

    Wait a second.

    Maggie’s last blog post..two minute break

    March 31, 2008 @ 3:49 am
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