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New Research Identifies Brain Benefits Of Vegetarian Diets

Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager By Abby Moore
Editorial Operations Manager
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine.
Refreshing salad made with watercress, arugula, almonds, orange and blood orange slices, ricotta cheese and vinaigrette dressing

More than 795,000 people have a stroke every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The accidents can lead to limitations in communication, paralysis, and sometimes death. Common recommendations for avoiding strokes include regular exercise and a healthy diet, and thanks to new research, we can get even more specific about what type of diet could protect the brain.

A study published in the journal Neurology found vegetarian diets lowered the risk of stroke compared to people who ate meat and fish. 

Researchers from Tzu Chi University in Hualien, Taiwan, studied two different communities, both of which encouraged vegetarian diets. About 30% of participants in each group were vegetarian, meaning they ate dairy and eggs but avoided meat and fish. 

The first group consisted of more than 5,000 adults who were followed for six years, and the second group consisted of more than 8,000 adults who were followed for nine years. At the start of the study, participants were 50 years old on average and had not experienced a stroke.

After the six and nine years had passed, researchers analyzed the Taiwanese national database to decipher the number of participants who had at least one stroke in that time. 

Of the smaller group, 32 people experienced ischemic strokes and only three of them were vegetarians. Within the larger group, only 0.88% of vegetarians experienced ischemic or hemorrhagic strokes, while 1.73% of nonvegetarians had at least one. 

How does diet affect brain health?

Well, diet affects brain health in several ways, including decreasing anxiety and delaying Alzheimer's. But in this particular case, the study found diets high in nuts, vegetables, and soy, but low in dairy, seemed to benefit the brain. 

Both ate the same amount of eggs and fruit, but vegetarian diets were richer in fiber and plant protein. Since other stroke risk factors, like blood pressure, blood glucose, and blood-fat levels, were already considered, study author Chin-Lon Lin, M.D., said there must be some protective mechanism in the vegetarian diet. 

"Stroke can also contribute to dementia," he said. "If we could reduce the number of strokes by people making changes to their diets, that would have a major impact on overall public health."


How conclusive is the research?

While the research was thorough and the sample size was large, it's important to note the limitations. Since participants all came from one region, and they did not drink or smoke, these findings might not reflect or extend to the general population. 

In fact, the findings contradict a previous study, published in BMJ, which found fish eaters and vegetarians had lower rates of ischemic heart disease but higher rates of hemorrhagic and other strokes.

Because of the two conflicting conclusions, further research, with a more diverse range of participants, needs to be done to determine meat's role—or lack thereof—in stroke risks. 

Whether it's for personal health, or the health of the planet, incorporating more plant-based proteins into your diet has its benefits. If you're not sure where to start with a vegetarian diet, check out these three recipes.

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