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Vegetarians and Heart Health: Perspective

Two nutrition experts who reviewed the study put the findings in perspective.

The link between the deficiencies in vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids and a higher heart disease risk is only a hypothesis at this point, says Lona Sandon, RD, a spokewoman for the American Dietetic Association and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas.

"The majority of research on vegetarianism supports it as a heart health-promoting lifestyle," she says. The author carefully chooses the word 'may' [to suggest risk linked with the deficiencies] as there is little evidence to support his hypothesis at this time."

She does agree that vegetarians are often low in vitamin B12 and omega-3.

Her advice? ''If you choose to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet, plan wisely. Some thought needs to be put into planning balanced meals and a variety of foods as well as cooking methods to obtain all nutrients needed for optimal health."

Most vegetarians are aware of the need to pay attention to B12 and omega-3 fatty acids, says Reed Mangels, PhD, RD, the nutrition advisor for the Vegetarian Resource Group.

She suggests for vitamin B12 that vegetarians consider taking a supplement or eat cereals fortified with the vitamin or drink soy, rice, or almond milk.

Vegetarians who eat eggs and drink cow's milk, the so-called ovo-lacto vegetarians, can obtain their B12 from those foods, says Mangels, who has written a book for dietitians, The Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets.

Omega-3 fatty acids are found in flaxseed, walnuts, and soy products.

According to the Institute of Medicine, adults should take in about 2.4 micrograms daily of vitamin B12. Men should eat 1.6 grams of omega-3s daily; women, 1.1 grams.

About 3% of the U.S. population is vegetarian, Mangels says. About one-third eat no meat but do eat eggs and dairy. Another one-third are vegans, who eat no dairy products. Another one-third eat no animal products, but do eat honey.

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