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Vegetarians have a higher risk of stroke: Know other health risks of a vegetarian diet

If you follow a vegetarian diet, it can cause a deficiency that may lead to anaemia. © Shutterstock

People who follow a meat-free diet may actually have a higher risk of stroke than those who eat meat. Read on to know the health risks of a vegetarian diet.

Written by Jahnavi Sarma |Published : September 7, 2019 3:47 PM IST

Vegetarian and pescatarian diets may be linked to a lower risk of coronary heart disease than diets that include meat. But vegetarians may be at a greater risk of stroke, say researchers from Central European University. They say that vegetarians are at a higher risk of haemorrhagic stroke and this could be due to low blood levels of total cholesterol or a low intake of certain vitamins. The BMJ published this study.

It is fashionable to be a vegetarian today. More and more people are adopting this diet for health benefits. A vegetarian diet is associated with a lower rate of cardiovascular health. But they do not consider the risks that this diet can bring with it. This may be due to lack of awareness and also the hype buzzing around a vegetarian diet.

Researchers studied data from the EPIC-Oxford study, a prospective cohort with one of the largest number of vegetarians, to explore the risks of coronary heart diseases and stroke in meat-eaters, pescatarians and vegetarians over an 18-year period. This included information on 48,188 people with an average age of 45 years recruited between 1993-2001. None of these people had any history of CHD or stroke. They were grouped into meat-eaters (24,428), pescatarians (7,506) and vegetarians, including vegans, (16,254).

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Researchers saw 2,820 cases of coronary heart diseases and 1,072 cases of stroke during the study period, including 519 cases of ischaemic stroke and 300 cases of haemorrhagic stroke. After taking into account other factors like medical history, smoking, physical activity and use of dietary supplements, they saw that pescatarians and vegetarians had a 13 per cent and 22 per cent lower risk of coronary heart disease respectively than meat-eaters.

This means that there were 10 fewer cases of coronary heart disease in vegetarians than in meat eaters per 1000 people consuming such diets over 10 years. They concluded that this may be, at least partly, due to lower BMI and lower rates of high blood pressure, high blood cholesterol and diabetes linked to these diets, say the authors.


But it was also seen that vegetarians had a 20 per cent higher risk of total stroke than meat eaters. This is equivalent to three more cases of stroke per 1000 people over 10 years. The rate of haemorrhagic stroke was also seen to be higher. Researchers say that this could be due to lower circulating cholesterol and deficiency of nutrients in vegetarians. Meat-eaters did not exhibit these deficiencies.

But this study was based mainly on white Europeans. Hence, the same rules may not apply in low and middle-income countries.


A vegetarian diet can be healthy for you. But this depends on how you plan your meals and if it contains all the nutrients needed by your body. If you neglect certain vitamins and minerals, you may develop deficiencies that can harm your health. Let us look at a few health risks of a vegetarian diet.

A vegetarian diet may affect metabolism

Your metabolism is regulated by your thyroid hormones, which is dependent on iodine. This mineral is also necessary for the health of your heart, brain and kidneys. Though seafood is the best source of iodine, you can get it from dairy products. Be sure to include a lot of milk and milk products in your diet.

You run the risk of anaemia

Vitamin B12 stimulates the production of red blood cells. This vitamin occurs naturally in animal products. If you follow a vegetarian diet, it can cause a deficiency that may lead to anaemia. Other symptoms of B12 deficiency are fatigue, diarrhoea and shortness of breath. Severe deficiency may cause neurological damage. You can also add eggs, fortified soy milk and cereals to your diet. Also consult your doctor. He may recommend a supplement.

It may affect your immune system

A vegetarian diet may cause zinc deficiency. This affects the immune system. Zinc is important for cell division and protein formation. It can be sourced from both animal and plant products, but your body absorbs it more readily through animal-based foods. Symptoms of this deficiency are loss of appetite, weight loss, loss of taste or sense of smell, hair loss, poor wound healing and depression. If you have any of these symptoms, consult a doctor. You may have to take a zinc supplement.

A vegetarian diet can lead to hair loss

Iron, vitamin B and zinc are important nutrients for healthy hair growth. These are commonly found in animal products. In a vegetarian, diet deficiency in these nutrients is very common. Though iron is found in beans and green, leafy vegetables, your body finds it harder to absorb this nutrient from these sources. Include a lot of grains, legumes and nuts to your diet. Another reason for hair loss is protein deficiency. This is common in vegetarians. So have a lot of protein-rich foods like soy, quinoa, whole wheat bread, broccoli, peanut butter, beans, kale, lentils, and almonds.

It can affect mood

A vegetarian diet can make you depressed. But it can improve you stress levels and make you less anxious. The nutrients that fuel our brain nutrients our brain are often found in meat and animal proteins. Any deficiency in these can lead to a lower level of glutamate in our bodies. This causes an increase in feelings of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Zinc and iron deficiency can cause mood swings. Even panic attacks can be because of an iron deficiency. Consult your doctor. Besides recommending supplements, he may also refer you to a nutritionist to help you make better eating choices.

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