Archive for the ‘Heart Disease’ Category

Odds and Ends

Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Nutrition-wise, I have been working on a resource on zinc for the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group.

The only new info from that research that I had not been considering before is that people who eat a lot of soy and who take calcium supplements might have higher zinc needs. Since I fall into both those categories, I’m wondering if that’s why I seem to benefit so much from zinc. I’m happy to report that I still have not gotten more than the mildest and shortest of colds since starting zinc supplements a number of years ago.

Many links I’ve wanted to share with readers have been building up and so I’m going to knock them all out in one post right here.

Regarding the report suggesting saturated fat intake has no bearing on heart disease (see Saturated Fats in the News), Dr. Rose Marie Robertson of the American Heart Association wrote a response worth sharing: Chief Science Officer ‘sets record straight’ about diet, science, AHA. is a website with a panel of health writers who research a wide array of nutrition supplements and other topics. They appear to do an excellent job of assessing the research. Along with the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University and the Office of Dietary Supplements, I can see as being one of my go-to sites for seeing what research is out there.

Speaking of go-to sites, Dr. Michael Greger of has just released Latest in Clinical Nutrition: Volume 19.

On March 10, the Washington Post ran an article (originally appearing in NewScientist) suggesting that many species of invertebrates feel pain: Do lobsters and other invertebrates feel pain? To summarize the article: octopi, squid, lobsters, crabs, and shrimp: yes. Insects: no.

Speaking of invertebrates and pain, there is a movement among some animal protectionists to promote bivalveganism. See The Ethical Case for Eating Oysters and Mussels – Part 2 at Sentientist. The author, Diana Fleischman, argues that bivalveganism can solve many of the nutrition dilemmas posed by vegan diets such as B12, iron, omega-3s, and zinc. It does seem like a decent solution for people who find it hard to thrive on vegan diets.


Vegan and animal advocate J Tower makes some pretty cool and functional furniture out of reclaimed materials. Check out his furniture here.

Saturated Fats in the News

Saturday, March 22nd, 2014

A 2014 meta-analysis of prospective cohorts and clinical trials did not find a statistically significant association between saturated fat and heart disease.

For a long time, there has been a theory in mainstream nutrition that saturated fat causes the body to increase the production of cholesterol which, in turn, increases the risk of heart disease. This theory has not been without its detractors.

A large meta-analysis from the UK released this week caused quite a splash because it found that saturated fat was not significantly associated with heart disease (1). It wasn’t a complete surprise, as a 2010 meta-analysis of prospective observational studies had already produced similar findings (2).

The 2014 meta-analysis produced results for three different types of studies:

1. 32 prospective cohort studies analyzing self-reported dietary intake of fatty acids.

2. 19 prospective cohort studies analyzing blood levels of fatty acids.

3. 27 randomized, controlled trials of various fatty acid supplementation regimens.

The results were fairly consistent in that very few associations were statistically significant.

Among the cohort studies analyzing intakes, total saturated fat had a slight trend towards more cardiovascular disease. The only statistically significant finding was for trans fats increasing the risk of heart disease, while long chain omega-3s (EPA and DHA) were almost significantly associated with a lower risk.

Among the cohort studies looking at blood levels, total saturated fat again had a slight trend towards more cardiovascular disease. When looking at individual types of saturated fats, the common saturated fats found in animal products, palmitic acid and stearic acid, were more strongly associated with heart disease, though still not statistically significant.

Interestingly, the only fatty acids in the blood that were significantly associated with heart disease (all inversely) were margaric acid (a saturated fat found primarily in dairy products), the long chain omega-3 fatty acids (EPA, DPA, and DHA), and, more surprisingly, the long chain omega-6 fatty acid, arachidonic acid.

Arachidonic acid had previously been thought to be a cause of inflammation, and therefore heart disease (though other research has countered that idea, see Omega-6s: Not So Bad?).

In terms of clinical trials, only supplementation with omega-3s and omega-6s were analyzed and didn’t find any statistically significant associations, though EPA and DHA came close to being associated with a lower risk.

There were some errors in the version of the paper I have, but these errors did not alter the conclusion according to the attached notice.

So what should someone think about all of this?

One of my regular readers suggested that if you take a bunch of studies with measurement error and throw them all together, you shouldn’t be surprised that you don’t find anything. Perhaps – I don’t know enough about biostatistcs to be able to assess that sort of thing.

Here is what I believe: The primary saturated fats found in animal products, palmitic and stearic acid, most likely contribute to an increase in cholesterol and an increase in the risk of heart disease for people who have high cholesterol. But what is probably more important is not eating too many calories. Fiber is also probably as important as saturated fat, if not more so (3), because it can transport cholesterol out of your system.

Speaking of saturated fat, Dr. Michael Greger’s latest video on low-carb diets might be relevant, Low Carb Diets and Coronary Blood Flow.


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1. Rajiv Chowdhury, Samantha Warnakula, Setor Kunutsor, Francesca Crowe, Heather A. Ward, Laura Johnson, Oscar H. Franco, Adam S. Butterworth, Nita G. Forouhi, Simon G. Thompson, Kay-Tee Khaw, Dariush Mozaffarian, John Danesh, Emanuele Di Angelantonio; Association of Dietary, Circulating, and Supplement Fatty Acids With Coronary RiskA Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Annals of Internal Medicine. 2014 Mar;160(6):398-406. | link

2. Siri-Tarino PW, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010 Mar;91(3):535-46. | link

3. Threapleton DE, Greenwood DC, Evans CE, Cleghorn CL, Nykjaer C, Woodhead C, Cade JE, Gale CP, Burley VJ. Dietary fibre intake and risk of cardiovascular disease: systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ. 2013 Dec 19;347:f6879. doi: 10.1136/bmj.f6879. | link

Ginny on Heart Dx and Denver

Friday, July 5th, 2013

Ginny Messina has a good article on heart disease and vegan diets:

Vegan Diets and Heart Health

She’s also going to be in Colorado this weekend and into the following week launching Vegan for Her:

Vegan for Her to Launch in Colorado

The Daniel Fast and WBC

Tuesday, May 21st, 2013

Following up on the post, White Blood Cells in Vegans, I came across two more pieces of info.

The Linus Pauling Institute says, “Vitamin A and retinoic acid play a central role in the development and differentiation of white blood cells, such as lymphocytes, which play critical roles in the immune response (1).”

Unlike omnivores, vegans do not have a direct, dietary source of vitamin A, but rather get it indirectly via carotenoids (mainly beta-carotene). Beta-carotene is fat-soluble. It seems theoretically, possible then, that a low intake of carotenoids or fat could contribute to lower vitamin A status and white blood cell count (WBC).

This is purely hypothetical; to my knowledge vitamin A levels have not been measured in vegans and other signs of low vitamin A status have not been a noted problem. Anecdotally, I had been eating plenty of beta-carotene and fat at the last measurement of my WBC which showed them to be below normal.

Paul Appleby, of EPIC, passed on a study to me of a clinical trial using a “Daniel Fast” from the University of Memphis (2). In this trial, mostly healthy and some vegetarian subjects (13 men, 30 women; 20-62 years old) went on a Daniel Fast for 21 days, eating no processed or packaged food and only plant foods (as much as they wanted). Their WBC went from an average of 5.7 to 5.0 (2). 5.0 is within the normal range, but on the lower end (normal being about 3.5 to 12.5 billion per liter).

The authors of the Daniel Fast study say, “It has been suggested that ingestion of food additives and preservatives can increase white blood cell count by triggering an immune response due to a sensing of invading pathogens from the food stuff; however, we are unaware of any scientific reports that confirm this hypothesis.” I should point out that lots of things have been suggested, but it doesn’t seem impossible that vegans generally eat less food additives and preservatives and this could be contributing to low WBC.

I have added this information to VeganHealth’s article on White Blood Cells.

There were some other interesting things about this study. Here are the before and after (or during in the case of the nutrient intakes):

calories: 2,185 → 1,722
fat (g): 74 → 54
fat (%): 30 → 27
saturated fat (g): 24 → 9
cholesterol (mg/dl): 171 → 139
LDL (mg/dl): 98 → 76
weight (lbs): 171 → 167
bp: 115/72 → 106/67

The authors did an analysis which showed that the improvements in these parameters did not occur in only the unhealthier subjects, but rather across the board. They say, “It is interesting to note that even those subjects who were vegetarian prior to starting the fast experienced dramatic reductions in total and LDL-[cholesterol], in addition to improvements in other markers. Clearly, the exclusion of meat from the diet (as is the case for vegetarians) is not the only dietary factor involved in raising circulating cholesterol and other risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic disease.”

It should be noted that this trial had no control group and was not randomized in any way.

I found this interesting because even though the subjects didn’t lose much weight (the weight change wasn’t even statistically significant), their blood pressure and cholesterol levels went down substantially in only 3 weeks. That’s impressive. But does it mean that it is the diet that everyone should be on all the time, indefinitely?

Stay tuned.


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1. Linus Pauling Institute. Micronutrient Information Center. Vitamin A. Accessed 5/20/13 | link

2. Bloomer RJ, Kabir MM, Canale RE, Trepanowski JF, Marshall KE, Farney TM, Hammond KG. Effect of a 21 day Daniel Fast on metabolic and cardiovascular disease risk factors in men and women. Lipids Health Dis. 2010 Sep 3;9:94. | link

Follow-Up to Carnitine and Atherosclerosis

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2013

Just before going on my break, I wrote about a recent study showing that meat-eaters have bacteria in their digestive tracts that turn carnitine (found in high amounts in red meat) into TMAO which causes atherosclerosis (see Carnitine, Red Meat, TMAO & CVD). That very day, a meta-analysis was released indicating that carnitine supplements can reduce mortality in people who have had heart attacks (1).

Does that meant that red meat actually prevents heart disease via it’s carnitine content?

When someone has a heart attack, their carnitine levels become depleted. The meta-analysis showed that supplementing with large doses of carnitine (an optimal dosage of 6-9 g/day, many times more than one could get from eating red meat) can reduce mortality, particularly in the first 5 days after the heart attack.

Ventricular arrhythmias and angina were also reduced, but heart failure and second heart attacks were not. The paper did not show how long these studies lasted – this information might have been included in their on-line charts, but I could not access them. Many of the studies were not double-blinded and there were some other methodological problems, so it’s not even clear whether carnitine does provide a benefit for all of these parameters, though I would not be surprised if the reduction in 5-day post-heart attack mortality holds true.

In any case, this meta-analysis has basically nothing to do with the study on carnitine and TMAO.


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1. Dinicolantonio JJ, Lavie CJ, Fares H, Menezes AR, O’Keefe JH. L-Carnitine in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Mayo Clin Proc. 2013 Apr 15. doi:pii: S0025-6196(13)00127-4. 10.1016/j.mayocp.2013.02.007. [Epub ahead of print] | link

Carnitine, Red Meat, TMAO & CVD

Friday, April 12th, 2013

This is red meat week!

If you haven’t heard about it by now, a new paper was released this week looking at the link between carnitine, gut bacteria, a molecule called TMAO, and atherosclerosis. The multi-part study was performed by researchers at the Cleveland Clinic, among other places, and was reported in the New York Times, Culprit in Heart Disease Goes Beyond Meat’s Fat, and today’s episode of Science Friday, Red Meat’s Heart Risk Goes Beyond the Fat (1).

The Science Friday episode is 13 minutes long and is a good overview of the research, though I will go over it here briefly.

Carnitine is an amino acid (but not a protein amino acid) that is used by the body to transport fatty acids into the cell’s mitochondria to be burned as energy. For this reason, there have been many trials of carnitine supplementation with hopes that it could increase fat loss and related conditions. The trails have been mixed (1). In food, carnitine is found in the highest amounts in beef (56-162 mg per 4 oz serving according to the NIH), while other foods have much lower amounts (a chicken breast has only 3-5 mg per 4 oz).

While humans can produce carnitine, and most people can produce all they need, only bacteria can break it down (1). Some bacteria convert carnitine into a molecule called trimethylamine (TMA) and when this happens, the liver converts TMA to trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO).

In 2011, in the article, Choline, I reported on a study by this same group of researchers that indicated that the metabolism of choline, by gut bacteria and then the liver, results in TMAO. The researchers found that high blood levels of TMAO were associated with cardiovascular disease.

This time, they studied carnitine rather than choline, and they came to a similar conclusions. They also found that vegetarians do not have the bacteria in their guts needed to produce TMAO out of carnitine; not that this really matters given that we eat little to no carnitine.

Based on their studies using mice :(, the researchers believe that TMAO prevents the metabolism of cholesterol by the liver and diverts it to the blood vessels where it becomes plaque.

In my series Of Meat and Mortality, I did not mention that the Harvard study found that saturated fat and cholesterol in red meat only moderately accounted for the increase in cardiovascular disease associated with red meat. This theory about TMAO causing heart disease might explain the finding by Harvard and also help explain why poultry has not had an association with mortality from cardiovascular disease while red meat has.

This is not the final word on carnitine and heart disease and it will be interesting to see what future research shows.


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1. Koeth RA, Wang Z, Levison BS, Buffa JA, Org E, Sheehy BT, Britt EB, Fu X, Wu Y, Li L, Smith JD, Didonato JA, Chen J, Li H, Wu GD, Lewis JD, Warrier M, Brown JM, Krauss RM, Tang WH, Bushman FD, Lusis AJ, Hazen SL. Intestinal microbiota metabolism of l-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med. 2013 Apr 7. doi: 10.1038/nm.3145. [Epub ahead of print] | link

British Vegetarians have 30% Reduced Risk of Heart Disease

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

Released last week:

Heart disease rates of all vegetarians compared to all non-vegetarians were calculated for EPIC-Oxford from 1993 until 2009 (1). These participants were all thought to be free of heart disease at the beginning of the study. The results showed that vegetarians had a statistically significant, ~30% reduced risk of heart disease (.68, .58-.81). That is a fairly impressive finding for a nutrition study.

All results were adjusted for age, smoking, alcohol, physical activity, education, socioeconomic status, oral contraceptives, and hormone replacement therapy. The findings held after adjusting for body mass index (BMI) and removing the first two years of follow-up. (See the table in EPIC-Oxford: Heart Disease (2013) of for the relative risks.)

The researchers believed the difference in heart disease rates to be due mainly to the lower non-HDL cholesterol and systolic blood pressure of the vegetarians. The non-vegetarians had an average total cholesterol level of 222 mg/dl vs. 203 mg/dl for the vegetarians, while HDL was 52 vs. 50 mg/dl respectively. Systolic blood pressure was 134 for non-vegetarians and 131 mm Hg for vegetarians.

Given that vegetarians had cholesterol levels an average of 203 mg/dl – a full 33% higher than the 150 mg/dl, upper-end-of-healthy that many of the very low-fat doctors recommend – it might come as a surprise to learn that, in the authors’ words, “On the basis of the absolute rates of hospitalization or death from IHD [ischemic heart disease], the cumulative probability of IHD between ages 50 and 70 y was 6.8% for nonvegetarians compared with 4.6% for vegetarians.”

In other words, with cholesterol levels that high in both groups, you might think they would have a very high rate of heart disease, but, from what I can tell (see reference #2), their rates are relatively comparable to the general population of the United States (2).

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1. Crowe FL, Appleby PN, Travis RC, Key TJ. Risk of hospitalization or death from ischemic heart disease among British vegetarians and nonvegetarians: results from the EPIC-Oxford cohort study. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print] | link

2. Prevalence of Coronary Heart Disease — United States, 2006–2010
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) for October 14, 2011. Accessed February 3, 2013. | link (PDF)

Of Oil and Ethics

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2012

I have a question in my inbox from someone asking if there “is anything to the ‘no oil’ diets,” such that Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn promotes. My answer is – certainly there is something to it. Dr. Esselstyn (1) and Dr. Dean Ornish (2) have used a very low-fat, plant-based diet (10% of the calories as fat) as part of a cholesterol-lowering program that has decreased the amount of plaque in patients’ arteries and led to much better outcomes than typical treatment for heart disease. Dr. Neal Barnard and the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine have used a very low-fat, vegan diet to treat type-2 diabetes with impressive outcomes (link).

But is it the only healthy diet that all vegans should eat? Let’s look at some other evidence.

A 2000 cross-sectional report (3) on cholesterol levels in men from EPIC-Oxford found the following:

  Meat-Eaters Vegan
fat 34% 30%
cholesterol (mg/dl) 191 158
saturated fat 12% 5%
calories 2,461 1,931

So the vegan men were eating a diet of 30% of their calories as fat while still maintaining cholesterol levels of 158 mg/dl. Some people would consider this level of cholesterol too high, and while trials of people with heart disease who lower their cholesterol levels to below 150 mg/dl have shown a great benefit in doing so, it is not clear (to me, anyway) that people without a history of high cholesterol and heart disease need to go as low as 150 mg/dl. Low calories (or body weight) and saturated fat may be the most important aspect of lowering cholesterol levels.

A cross-sectional study on cholesterol levels is not the highest form of evidence compared to the clinical trials I mentioned earlier. What about trials of higher fat diets?

The Eco-Atkins diet, a high-protein, higher fat version of a vegan diet found better changes in blood lipids and higher levels of satiety when compared to a lower fat, near-vegan diet (4). But this trial only lasted 4 weeks, not nearly long enough to measure heart disease outcomes. Cholesterol levels of the people on Eco-Atkins went from 257 to 205 mg/dl – nowhere near as low as the very low-fat diets generally achieve, but, again, it was only four weeks long. [2014 Update on Eco-Atkins]

Most of the very low-fat diets do not allow for many nuts. While nuts have consistently been associated with positive health outcomes (lower body weight, better cholesterol levels, etc.), one vegan doctor, who uses low-fat diets to treat heart disease, told me that many of his patients binge on nuts when they are part of their diets and so he suggests they avoid them. I’ve heard from others that if they eat nuts they gain weight. It doesn’t completely surprise me that someone on a very low-fat diet might binge on nuts – they might be craving the fat or protein. But if you are someone who can eat nuts in moderation, then having some is most likely beneficial for preventing heart disease and long-term weight maintenance.

Though it may be rare, or even extremely rare, some people who follow a very low-fat diet find that they lose their libido and regain it upon eating more fat.

Earlier this month, Jeff Nelson of wrote an article, How the ethical argument fails veganism. In it, he disagrees with my co-founder of Vegan Outreach, Matt Ball, and my co-author of Vegan For Life, Ginny Messina, as to whether the health argument is the way to go when spreading veganism. He also disparages “AR dietitians” in general, of which I can’t help but notice that I am one.

Aside from the fact that Matt nor I care about veganism as anything more than a tool for protecting animals and the environment, the central thesis of Nelson’s article is that people who become vegan for health reasons are more likely to stick with the diet than people who go vegan for ethical reasons. He says that people who go vegan for ethical reasons are usually not as educated about health and nutrition due to being persuaded by organizations that do not give them adequate information; so they eat processed foods and end up concluding that a vegan diet is not healthier. The people who go vegan for health reasons, on the other hand, understand the importance of avoiding processed foods and oils, and their health improves.

While many people do well on a whole-foods only, very low-fat vegan diet, my experience has been that such diets can sometimes result in failure to thrive, while many people do thrive on a vegan diet that includes more fat and processed foods.

The vegans I know are mostly animal advocates, and, therefore, are dedicated to being vegan. Very few of them had been diagnosed with heart disease or type-2 diabetes before becoming vegan, so they are not necessarily in the same boat as people who become vegan to treat their disease. The vast majority of the vegan, animal advocates I have know have stayed vegan, and most eat processed foods. From soy foods to french fries to desserts made with white flour and sugar, the vegans I know eat ’em. Of course, most of them also eat more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes and nuts than the average American.

My cholesterol tends to be around 150 mg/dl. If I were eating a very low-fat diet, it might be even lower, possibly decreasing my risk for heart disease. But I crave protein and feel better when eating a good amount, possibly due to my fairly intensive weight lifting. I do much better eating soyfoods and other processed foods such as pasta, than when eating only whole plant foods.

There are health issues that might prevent people from eating only whole foods, such as digestive problems, and those have to be dealt with on a case by case basis.

I generally tell people who have metabolic syndrome that they should tend towards a whole-foods diet, greatly limiting added oils but including nuts, while those who are not as much at risk can afford to eat more processed foods, especially those high in protein and/or pastas (which generally do not raise blood sugar as high as other processed grains). Monitoring your weight, cholesterol, and blood sugar levels is a good idea to see if the diet you are eating is working for you.

At some point there might be clinical trials examining cardiac outcomes in people on vegan diets that are not so low in fat or in vegans who have not been diagnosed with heart disease. We do have some data on heart disease in vegans from the 1999 meta-analysis, but it isn’t much.


1. Esselstyn CB Jr. Updating a 12-year experience with arrest and reversal therapy for coronary heart disease (an overdue requiem for palliative cardiology). Am J Cardiol. 1999 Aug 1;84(3):339-41, A8. | link

2. Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, Brown SE, Gould KL, Merritt TA, Sparler S, Armstrong WT, Ports TA, Kirkeeide RL, Hogeboom C, Brand RJ. Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA. 1998 Dec 16;280(23):2001-7. Erratum in: JAMA 1999 Apr 21;281(15):1380. | link

3. Allen NE, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Hormones and diet: low insulin-like growth factor-I but normal bioavailable androgens in vegan men. Br J Cancer. 2000 Jul;83(1):95-7. | Link

4. Jenkins DJ, Wong JM, Kendall CW, Esfahani A, Ng VW, Leong TC, Faulkner DA, Vidgen E, Greaves KA, Paul G, Singer W. The effect of a plant-based low-carbohydrate (“Eco-Atkins”) diet on body weight and blood lipid concentrations in hyperlipidemic subjects. Arch Intern Med. 2009 Jun 8;169(11):1046-54. Erratum in: Arch Intern Med. 2009 Sep 14;169(16):1490. | link

B12 Improves Cardiovascular Function in Vegetarians

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

I just updated Mild B12 Deficiency – Cardiovascular Disease & Homocysteine with the following from a study that just came out:

A 2012 randomized, placebo-controlled, crossover clinical trial tested B12 supplementation’s effects on flow-mediated dilation (FMD) of the brachial artery and intima-media thickness (IMT) of the carotid artery, both of which are markers of cardiovascular disease (1). The study was done in Hong Kong and there were 50 vegetarians, two of whom were vegan. Twelve subjects (24%) had serum vitamin B-12 between 203-406 pg/ml and 35 subjects (70%) < 203 pg/ml. After 12-week periods of 500 µg of B12 per day, average homocysteine levels went from 16.7 to 11.3 µmol/l. Brachial artery FMD significantly increased and carotid IMT significantly decreased, both of which improves cardiovascular function, after vitamin B12 but not after placebo treatment. These positive effects appeared to be better correlated with the correction of vitamin B12 deficiency than with the lowering of homocysteine. The authors noted that the effects “on carotid intima-media thickness was quite subtle and of uncertain biological significance.”


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I was surprised that with 500 µg B12 per day, homocysteine levels did not decrease even further, especially since these participants were shown to have good folate status. The study contained no control group of non-vegetarians, so it’s not clear if the same results would be found for non-vegetarians, though rarely do non-vegetarians have an average homocysteine level as high as 16.7 µmol/l.

In any case, this appears to be the first direct evidence on cardiovascular function to show that mild vitamin B12 deficiency could have a negative effect.

None of the participants experienced side effects, including skin reactions, while on the B12 supplementation regimen.


1. Kwok T, Chook P, Qiao M, Tam L, Poon YK, Ahuja AT, Woo J, Celermajer DS, Woo KS. Vitamin B-12 supplementation improves arterial function in vegetarians with subnormal vitamin B-12 status. J Nutr Health Aging. 2012;16(6):569-73. | link

Percentage of Fat in the Diet

Thursday, January 26th, 2012

Here’s something I’ve been mentioning in my talks lately. A 2000 study measured the percentage of calories as fat in the diet as well as cholesterol levels in a subset of EPIC-Oxford vegan and non-vegan men. Here is what they found:

Meat Eaters Vegans
% fat 34 30
blood cholesterol (mg/dl) 191 158
% saturated fat 12% 5%
calories 2,461 1,931
fiber (g) 18 28
cholesterol (mg) 327 21*
total fat (g) 93 64
*Cholesterol intake by vegans likely due to using foods that contained small amounts of animal products in calculating the nutrient composition of foods. In other words, using bread made with animal products versus vegan bread in the nutrient calculations. Also possible that some vegan participants were not 100% vegan.

Vegans ate 30% of their calories as fat compared to 34% for meat-eaters. Not a huge difference and many people would be horrified at such a high fat intake on behalf of the vegans. Yet, their cholesterol levels were well below what is commonly considered the danger zone.

What accounts for this? The vegans’ much lower intake of saturated fat probably explains a lot. But the vegans’ 20% fewer calories also probably accounts for much of their lower cholesterol levels. Addendum 1/27/12: Additionally, higher fiber intake and zero or near-zero cholesterol intake all likely contribute to the vegans’ lower cholesterol levels. Clarification 1/30/12: People who exercise a lot can eat more calories without cholesterol levels increasing as long as they are not eating so much that they gain body fat (thanks, Ginny).

Some people might point out that ideal cholesterol levels are actually less than 150 mg/dl, so 158 mg/dl is too high. While many clinical trials in people with heart disease (and normally on cholesterol-lowering medication) show a benefit to getting levels below 150 mg/dl, I have not seen evidence that this is ideal, or even desirable in people without diagnosed heart disease or normally high cholesterol. Instead, the observational studies I’ve seen measuring cholesterol levels and mortality have not shown a benefit from cholesterol levels less than 160 mg/dl.

I would not completely rule out the idea that studies have not shown reduced mortality in people with cholesterol levels less than 160 mg/dl because they have not included enough people with cholesterol levels that low and who do not have such low levels due to undiagnosed disease. But “not completely ruling out something” is a far cry from saying there is good evidence that it is true.

The reason I think this is particularly important is anecdotal evidence that people on long-term, low-fat diets can find them hard to stick with. I know there are some exceptions – people who find them easy to stick with, but I sense that there are more who find it difficult. When people crave meat, they tend to think they are craving the protein. But meat is also about 50% fat on average and it would not surprise me if such people are often craving fat as much or more than protein. Eating a diet closer to 30% fat might prevent such cravings.

Yes, lots of qualifiers above that I’m not 100% certain of everything I’m saying. But I think there is enough evidence that I should share it with readers rather than just keeping it to myself until “further studies” are done.


Allen NE, Appleby PN, Davey GK, Key TJ. Hormones and diet: low insulin-like growth factor-I but normal bioavailable androgens in vegan men. Br J Cancer. 2000 Jul;83(1):95-7. Link