Eating a vegan diet reduces the risk of heart disease – at least according to some studies. This isn’t surprising since feasting on a plant-based diet that’s high in fiber and low in saturated fat reduces cholesterol levels. Plants also contain natural chemicals like saponins, flavonoids and phytosterols that are heart-healthy. But vegans aren’t immune to heart disease – and most are missing two components in their diet that are important for a healthy heart.
Vegans and Heart Disease
A vegan diet is low in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 – and no wonder. Vitamin B12 is found only in meat and dairy products, neither of which is part of a vegan diet. Low levels of vitamin B12 increase levels of homocysteine in the blood, which is linked with a greater risk of heart disease.
In addition, vitamin B12 deficiency can cause anemia and severe neurological damage that may be irreversible. A vitamin B12 deficiency doesn’t develop quickly since the liver can store it – but people who are vegans for years are at significant risk for low B12 levels.
Vegans get few omega-3 fatty acids in their diet since they’re mostly found in fatty fish, and vegans don’t eat fish. Studies show that omega-3s help to lower the risk of heart disease by reducing inflammation in blood vessels and by keeping platelets from clumping together to form clots. These “fishy oils” also lower triglyceride levels and raise levels of HDL (the good cholesterol).
Another polyunsaturated fatty acid called alpha-linolenic acid, or ALA, can be converted to omega-3s, but this conversion is not very efficient. Walnuts, chia and flaxseed are good sources of ALA.
Supplements for Vegans for a Healthy Heart: The Bottom Line?
Vegans need omega-3s and vitamin B12 in their diet to help ward off heart disease. If you’re vegan, ask your doctor to check a B12 level. If it’s low, you may need monthly B12 injections. If not, take an oral B12 supplement to get the B12 that normally comes from eating meat and dairy products.
Omega-3s are a little more of a challenge to get from a vegan diet since they’re derived from fish. The best option is to increase the amount of ALA in your diet by eating more walnuts and flaxseed. This isn’t ideal since ALA isn’t readily converted to the omega-3s, so you’ll need several grams of ALA a day. To boost ALA, add two to three tablespoons of flaxseed to your cereal in the morning – and munch on a handful of walnuts.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore omega-3s and vitamin B12 if you’re vegan. You could pay for it with heart disease later.
Nutra-ingredients.com. “Vegan Diet Requires Omega-3 and B12 Boost”
Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Volume 17. No. 5. 1998.