(NaturalNews) Researchers from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, have published a study in the journal Arthritis Research and Therapy showing that eating a vegan, gluten-free diet may reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes in rheumatoid arthritis patients, as well as reducing the severity of the disease.
Rheumatoid arthritis is considered a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
The researchers studied 66 adults with rheumatoid arthritis, averaging 50 years in age. Thirty-eight of the adults were placed on a vegan, gluten-free diet in which carbohydrates provided 60 percent of daily calories, fat provided 30 percent and protein provided 10 percent.
A vegan diet is one free of any animal products, including flesh, dairy and eggs. In addition to omitting animal products, the study participants also eschewed gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, oats and rye.
Instead, participants in the vegan, gluten-free group began with a one-day, low-energy diet of berry juice and broth. Starting on the second day, they were fed grains such as buckwheat, corn, millet and rice, as well as ample quantities of nuts, sunflower seeds, vegetables and fruits. Calcium was provided with a daily serving of sesame milk.
The 28 participants in the control group were fed a diet including both animal products and gluten with a similar carbohydrate-fat-protein breakdown to the vegan diet. They were encouraged to eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day and to eat complex carbohydrates, such as whole grains and potatoes, over simpler sources.
In both diets, saturated fat was kept to a maximum of 10 percent of daily energy intake.
After three and 12 months, the researchers measured several biomarkers in all the participants. Only 58 percent of the people in the vegan, gluten-free group completed the study.
The researchers found that participants in the vegan group experienced a drop in their body mass index, total cholesterol and LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Triglyceride and HDL ("good") cholesterol levels did not change. There was also an increase in the levels of antiPC antibodies, which are believed to help protect the body against cardiovascular disease.
None of these markers changed in the control group.
"These findings are compatible with previous results of vegetarian/vegan dietary regimens in non-rheumatoid arthritis subjects, which have shown lower blood pressure, lower body mass index and lower incidence of cardiovascular disease," the researchers said.
High LDL and total cholesterol, as well as higher body mass index, are all risk factors for heart attack and stroke.
In addition, the researchers found that levels of the inflammation marker CRP and the number of swollen joints decreased in those on the vegan, gluten-free diet. There was no change in those on the control diet.
In contrast to the more common osteoarthritis, which is caused by damage to the cartilage and lubricating fluid in the joints, rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disorder caused when the body's immune system attacks its own tissue. In addition to the pain and restricted movement caused by the destruction of joints, the inflammation caused by the immune system's attacks increases patients' risk of heart attacks and strokes.
Approximately 20 million people around the world suffer from rheumatoid arthritis, which affects women more than men. Early diagnosis can slow the progress of the disease, but there is no cure.
The United Kingdom's National Health Service cautioned that the study had a small sample size and did not follow patients long enough to see if there was actually a reduction in the rate of heart attacks and strokes.
Still, Sir Muir Gray, the agency's chief knowledge officer said that anyone interested in preserving their health should try to eat a more vegan diet.
"The evidence is mounting; if you want to stay healthy and save the planet, eat less, eat more plants and eat only food that your great grandmother would recognize if she were alive today," Gray said.