Experts have long suspected that switching to a vegan or vegetarian diet may ease rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms. A vegan diet eliminates all animal products, including meat, fish, eggs and dairy; most "ordinary" vegetarian diets eliminate only meat. Now, research suggests that a vegan diet may also help protect people with RA against heart attacks and strokes.
In a small Swedish study, researchers put 38 adults with RA on a vegan, gluten-free diet. (Gluten is a protein found in a number of grains; many people find gluten hard to digest.) Vegan meals were centered on vegetables, fruit, nuts, sunflower seeds, buckwheat, millet, rice and corn. Sesame milk was a key source of calcium. Daily nutrient intake on the vegan diet included 60% carbohydrates, 30% fats and 10% protein.
An additional 28 adults followed a balanced, nonvegan diet with a similar mix of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Everyone in the study was told to continue taking all the medications their doctors prescribed.
After one year, researchers compared the two groups and found that the folks on the vegan diet had lower levels of total cholesterol and less LDL ("bad") cholesterol than the nonvegans did.
Vegans also showed reduced amounts of C-reactive protein, a substance in the blood that indicates the presence of inflammation in the body.
Another bonus for vegans: As a group, they lost more weight and had a lower average body mass index (BMI) than the nonvegans did.
If you're considering switching to a vegan diet, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. Unless menus are carefully planned, they may be deficient in some key nutrients, including vitamin B12 and calcium. Because of this, it's a good idea to check with a healthcare professional before making serious dietary changes.
When switching to a vegan diet, emphasize four food groups: whole grains, vegetables, fruit and legumes. It's also smart to take a daily multivitamin.
Even if you're not ready to become a total vegan, it's easy to start heading in that direction. Little by little, just add more fruits, vegetables and grains to your diet.
Here are some vegan foods that contain key nutrients:
- Calcium: Broccoli, collard greens, fortified juices, kale, soy products
- Iron: Chickpeas, pinto beans, soy products, spinach
- Protein: Corn; legumes, such as beans, peanuts and soy products, including tofu; rice; pasta; whole-wheat bread
- Vitamin B12: Fortified breakfast cereals and fortified soy milk