Vegan Health ArticlesAntioxidant Status of Vegetarians
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From by Michael Greger, M.D.

While physicists since Einstein have been struggling to piece together a Grand Unified Theory to explain the underlying cause of forces like gravity and electromagnetism, medical scientists have been trying to piece together the underlying cause of aging and disease. Perhaps the leading contender is the Oxidant Stress Theory, which posits that free radicals cause the tissue damage that underlies most of our chronic disease states as well as the age-related deterioration in our bodies. Basically, the theory contends, we're rusting. Just like rust is the oxidation of metal, aging and disease can be thought of as the oxidation of our bodies.

The Oxidant Stress Theory explains why fruit and vegetable consumption seems to protect against almost every disease from Alzheimer's and cancer to heart disease and stroke. The antioxidants found in whole plant foods (fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains) play a role in squelching the free radicals we produce within our own bodies and are exposed to within our environment.

It is not surprising then that vegetarians have both higher levels of antioxidants in their blood and correspondingly lower rates of chronic disease. What few scientists have looked into, though, in terms of completing the chain of causation, is a demonstration that vegetarians have lower levels of the intermediate indicators of oxidized tissue damage. Recently, though, researchers in the Slovak Republic have closed the gap.

The researchers approximated the level of tissue damage by measuring the level of what are called "peroxidized conjugated dienes," which are caused by perhaps the most dreaded free radical, the highly toxic hydroxyl radical. While over 40% of those eating meat exceeded safety limits for these damage indicators, only 8% of those eating vegetarian for an average of just ten years strayed into the danger zone. The researchers suspect that vegetarians would have had even lower levels of oxidant damage had they not had elevated levels of homocysteine due to inadequate vitamin B12 intake. To take full advantage of the benefits of plant-based nutrition, they recommended vegetarians ensure a reliable source of B12 (from fortified foods or supplements).

The results of the study not only "document a better antioxidant status of vegetarians as a consequence of higher consumption of protective food," but the researchers suspect the results may also stem from the pro-oxidant damage caused particularly by the heme (blood-based) iron found in red meat, chickens, and fish. This may explain why high tissue levels of iron are associated with a number of pathologies including some cancers, inflammation, diabetes, liver and heart disease.[1] "Our results," the researchers conclude, "indicate that vegetarian nutrition might provide an effective prevention of free radical diseases."[2]


[1] Fraga CG, Oteiza PI: Iron Toxicity and Antioxidant Nutrients. Toxicol 2002, 180:23-32.

[2] Krajcovicova_-Kudla_ckova M_, Spustova_ V, and Paukova V_. "Lipid Peroxidation and Nutrition." Physiology Research. 53(2004): 219-224.

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We began this archive as a means of assisting our visitors in answering many of their health and diet questions, and in encouraging them to take a pro-active part in their own health. We believe the articles and information contained herein are true, but are not presenting them as advice. We, personally, have found that a whole food vegan diet has helped our own health, and simply wish to share with others the things we have found. Each of us must make our own decisions, for it's our own body. If you have a health problem, see your own physician.