Arthritis sufferers who adhere to a gluten-free vegan diet could be better protected against heart attacks and stroke
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is considered to be a major risk factor for cardiovascular diseases.
However, according to findings published in the open access journal Arthritis Research & Therapy, adapting the diet of RA patients could go some way to protecting against these heart conditions.
Researchers led by Johan Frostegard of the Rheumatology Unit at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm found that a gluten-free vegan diet was shown to lower cholesterol - both low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and oxidizedLDL (OxLDL) - in RA sufferers.
In addition, the diet also raised the levels of natural antibodies against the damaging compounds in the body that cause symptoms of the chronic inflammatory disease rheumatoid arthritis, such as phosphorylcholine.
The gluten-free vegan diet was also found to lower the body mass index (BMI) of patients.
The researchers divided sixty-six RA patients randomly into two groups. Thirty-eight of the volunteers were asked to eat a gluten-free vegan diet for one year, while the other 28 consumed a well-balanced but non-vegan diet during the period.
The vegan diet group started with one-day low-energy fasting, with vegetable broth and berry juices, followed by the gluten-free vegan diet for one year.
In the vegan diet, protein energy level was 10 per cent of the total energy intake, carbohydrate was 60 per cent, and fat was 30 per cent.
The vegan diet contained vegetables, root vegetables, nuts, and fruits. As gluten was not permitted, the diet contained buckwheat, millet, corn, rice, and sunflower seeds.
Unshelled sesame seeds in the form of sesame milk were a daily source of calcium.
The control diet contained10-15 per cent protein, 55-60 per cent carbohydrate, and no more than 30 per cent fat. Five or more daily servings of fruits and vegetables were recommended, as well as increasing intakes of starch and other complex carbohydrates by eating potatoes, bread, and cereals and selecting whole-grain products as often as possible.
Frostegard and his team analysed the levels of fatty, lipid molecules in blood samples using routine analytical methods at regular periods.
They also measured oxLDL and anti-phosphorylcholine (antiPC) factor at the beginning of the experiment, at 3 months and again at 12 months.
The researchers found that the gluten-free vegan diet reduced "significantly" LDL and oxLDL levels and raised antiPC antibodies, while also lowering the body-mass index (BMI) of the volunteers in that group.
Levels of other fatty molecules, including triglycerides and high-density lipoprotein (HDL) stayed the same. In contrast, none of the indicators differed significantly for the control groups on the conventional healthy diet.
"There is now a large body of evidence indicating that this change of lipid profile is favorable in relation to atherosclerosis and CVD, and this diet therefore is likely to be antiatherogenic also in RA," wrote the researchers.
"We also report that both BMI and weight decreased significantly in the vegan diet group, which was not the case in the control group. Cholesterol, LDL, and BMI also differed significantly between groups and not only within the vegan group."
According to Frostegard, the findings of the study could be used to improve the long-term health of people with rheumatoid arthritis.
However, he added that a larger study group will be needed to discern which particular aspects of the diet are the most beneficial.