Vegans face higher stroke risk: Here's why

A large new study on vegetarian, vegan, and pescatarian diets highlights a number of potential health benefits and risks associated with each diet, including everything from lowered risk of heart disease to a fairly notable increase in stroke risk. Though the reasons for the increased stroke risk isn't entirely clear, the study suggests it may be due to low levels of certain vitamins and/or low levels of cholesterol.READ: Plant-based diets may protect the heart, but lack a vital brain nutrient

Plant-based diets, as well as ones that reduce the overall amount of animal products, are increasingly popular among consumers who express health and environmental concerns.

This popularity has spurred the arrival of a number of meat-like animal protein alternatives like Impossible Burger and Beyond Meat, both of which have progressed to the level of fast-food availability.

Past research

A number of studies have found health benefits associated with eating plant-based and reduced-meat diets, including reduced inflammation, a decrease in the severity of diseases that involve chronic inflammation, reduced risks of developing heart disease and certain cancers, and more.

The long-term health consequences of entirely eliminating animal products, including dairy and eggs, from one's diet remain unclear, however. Past research has warned that plant-based dieters who aren't careful about supplementing their diets with certain fortified products may develop deficiencies in iron, B12, choline, and other nutrients that are difficult to get without supplements or animal products.

Good news for the heart

A study recently published in the British Medical Journal evaluated the potential health benefits and risks of eating vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian diets. Whereas vegan diets avoid all animal products, vegetarian diets avoid meat but may include dairy and eggs. Pescatarian diets are often similar to vegetarian diets, but with the inclusion of seafood like fish and shrimp.

First, the good news: the study found that vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians all had lower risks of developing cardiovascular disease than meat-eaters. The findings come from a large study that involved analyzing data on more than 48,000 people, including more than 24,000 pescetarians, 16,000 vegans, and 7,500 vegetarians.

When it comes to coronary heart disease (CHD), the researchers found that when compared to meat-eaters, vegetarians had 22-percent lower risk and pescetarians had a 13-percent lower risk of developing the condition. This positive link may be due to the lower number of people in these categories who had high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes.

Stroke risk?

While the findings were favorable when it comes to coronary heart disease, the same study found that people who eat vegetarian and vegan diets may face considerably higher stroke risk than people who eat meat. Both groups had a 20-percent greater risk of experiencing a stroke, which works out to around three additional stroke cases per 1,000 people in a 10-year period of time.

This increased risk may be due to the lower levels of B12 and circulating cholesterol found in vegans and vegetarians, according to the study. There is a big limitation to the study, however, and it's that most of the participants were from the UK, meaning the results may not be applicable to populations in low-income countries where vegetarian diets are common.

Despite that, the study indicates that while eating a plant-based diet may offer a number of positive health outcomes, some people may benefit from adding small amounts of meat in their diet, such as in the case of pescatarians who collectively did not face similar increased stroke risk.