March 21, 2008 -- "Gluten-free" vegan diets aren't just for health-food nuts. New research from Sweden shows that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients who skip both animal products and certain grains could reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
RA is a chronic inflammatory disease that is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis -- the buildup of plaque in the arteries that can lead to heart attack and stroke. Sticking to a gluten-free vegan diet lowers the most damaging forms of artery-clogging cholesterol and increases levels of antibodies that may be protective against the inflammation that contributes to both RA and heart disease, researchers report in the March 18 issue of Arthritis Research & Therapy.
To discover the effects of a vegan, gluten-free diet on RA and its heart disease risks, Johan Frostegard and his colleagues at Karolinska University Hospital in Sweden randomly assigned 66 patients (average age, 50) with RA to a vegan diet, gluten-free diet, or a well-balanced diet for one year. The vegan diet contained vegetables, nuts, fruits, buckwheat, millet, corn, rice, sunflower seeds, and sesame milk. The well-balanced diet incorporated a variety of foods from every food group.
The researchers checked participants' blood samples at three and 12 months. They found that people who followed the vegan, gluten-free diet showed improvement in several markers of heart disease. At 12 months:
- They lost an average of 9 pounds of weight (compared to less than 2 pounds in the other group).
- They reduced their body mass index (BMI) from 24.1 to 22.7 (the other group reduced their BMI only slightly, from 23.8 to 23.4).
- They had lower total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL -- the "bad," artery-clogging type of cholesterol).
- They had higher levels of a type of antibody called anti-PC IgA, which may be protective against atherosclerosis.
The small study did not look at actual development of heart disease or heart disease events. They say larger studies are needed in the future to find out exactly which elements of the gluten-free vegan diet offer the greatest benefit.
This study suggests that cutting out all animal products, including meat, cheese, and eggs, as well as wheat, oats, rye, barley, and other grains that contain the protein gluten, might improve the health of people with RA. Just be careful if you do follow this type of diet to ensure that you get enough protein, calcium, iron, and vitamins. Include nuts and seeds, soy milk, calcium-enriched tofu, and dark-green leafy vegetables to provide the right nutritional balance.