The cardiovascular risk vegetarians and vegans face

Do you know one of the most common reasons people go vegetarian or vegan?

For cardiovascular health.

Just look at Kevin Smith, the director and writer of classic movies like Clerks and Jay and Silent Bob

He went from a meatball sub-loving carnivore to a fake meatball sub-loving vegan after having a widowmaker heart attack. Now he’s happier, healthier and thinner than ever.

Kevin’s decision to go vegan for better heart health was a wise one when you look at the research. Studies show that vegetarians have fewer risk factors for heart disease, including lower cholesterol and a healthier BMI.

Eating more plant-based protein is also tied to a 60 percent lower risk of developing plaque in your arteries. That may be why people who have a higher-ratio of plant-based protein to animal-based protein in their diet are less likely to end up with cardiovascular disease later in their lives.

But a new study throws a curveball at all those vegans and vegetarians who gave up meat to curb cardiovascular disease…

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A higher risk of stroke

A new study from researchers at Oxford University shows vegetarians and vegans have a higher risk of stroke than people who eat meat.

The study included 48,000 adults with no history of cardiovascular disease. Researchers tracked their health and diet habits for nearly two decades. In the end, vegetarians and vegans had a 20 percent higher stroke risk.

That’s shocking. Giving up meat is usually good for cardiovascular health. So, why would a plant-based lifestyle put you at risk for stroke?

Related: 11 stroke signals no woman should ignore

Researchers don’t know for sure. But past research shows that low cholesterol levels may increase stroke risk. And people who don’t eat meat are more likely to have low cholesterol levels. Nutritional deficiencies are another possibility. People who don’t eat meat are more likely to have vitamin B12, vitamin D, amino acid and fatty acid deficiencies.

But there is a bright side to the study for people who don’t eat meat…

Vegetarians and vegans still came out on top in another area of cardiovascular health. Their heart disease risk was 13 percent lower.

Since heart disease is more common than stroke, researchers think the cardiovascular benefits of vegetarian and vegan diets may still outweigh the risks.

Forget meat… focus on this instead

So, should you start eating meat if you’re a vegetarian? Or stop eating meat if you’re a meat-eater?

Nope. Researchers say no one should drastically overhaul their diet based on the results of this study. It was an observational study, and they need to do more research before they can say for sure that vegan and vegetarian diets contribute to stroke.

In the meantime, everyone — whether you eat meat or not — can make a simple diet change that will lead to better health…

Eat less processed food.

When I was vegan in my late teens and early 20s, I ate a ton of processed food — fake meat, vegan baked goods, even the occasional fast food. So, I know it’s possible to do the vegan thing wrong…just like it’s possible to do the meat-eating thing wrong.  And the common thread in both cases is processed food.

Eating lots of processed food leads to a higher stroke and heart disease risk regardless of your meat-eating preferences. So, while scientists sort out the whole meat thing, cutting back on processed food is one dietary change we can all feel good about.

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  1. A New Study Suggests Vegetarians and Vegans Are at Higher Risk of Stroke. But Don’t Reach for That Steak Just YetTime
  2. Risks of ischaemic heart disease and stroke in meat eaters, fish eaters, and vegetarians over 18 years of follow-up: results from the prospective EPIC-Oxford studyThe BMJ
  3. Nutrition 2018: New data confirm health benefits of plant-based diet — Medical News Today
  4. Ultra-processed foods linked to poor heart health — Harvard Health Publishing
Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and