Gluten-Free Vegan Diet Found Effective in Rheumatoid Arthritis

On March 18th, the Arthritis Research andTherapy journal reported that rheumatoid arthritis patients who followed a gluten-free vegan diet experienced significant athero-protective and anti-inflammatory changes compared to a control group.

Here is how Clan Thompson, the organization that publishes fabulous gluten-free food and drug databases, summarizes the results:

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) patients who eat a gluten-free vegan diet could be better protected against heart attacks and stroke. RA is a major risk factor for these cardiovascular diseases, but a gluten-free vegan diet was shown to lower cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and oxidizedLDL (OxLDL), as well as raising 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. These findings are reported today in the open access journal Arthritis Research & Therapy.

The idea that we can influence our health by changing our eating habits has become a fashionable idea among lifestyle and consumer magazines. There is evidence that dietary changes can bring about health benefits but specific results are not widespread.

Now, Johan Frostegard of the Rheumatology Unit at the Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm and colleagues divided sixty-six RA patients randomly into two groups. They randomly assigned 38 of the volunteers to eat a gluten-free vegan diet, and the other 28 a well-balanced but non-vegan diet for one year. They 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 not only reduced LDL and oxLDL levels and raised antiPC antibodies but lowered 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.

AntiPC antibodies are studied within CVDIMMUNE, an European consortium led by Dr Frostegard with the hypothesis that such antibodies can protect against cardiovascular disease and can be used as diagnostic and therapeutic factors.

Frostegard and colleagues have now shown that diet could be used to improve the long-term health of people with rheumatoid arthritis. They concede that a bigger study group will be needed to discern which particular aspects of the diet help the most.
See my interview with Raw Daddy for more info and resources on following a vegan diet.


Anna said...

This study has way too many variables to determine that a vegan diet protects against heart attacks and strokes. I can think of several glaring variables right off the top of my head, but in fact, there could easily be even more variables that confound the results.

The inclusion or exclusion of gluten is probably the most noticeble variable (& very likely quite significant, considering how gluten sensitivities have great implications in auto-immune conditions). A gluten-free diet would have been largely grain-free and low in starch, too, which might greatly lower insulin levels, too, as well as triglycerides. Many low carb diets are gluten-free and also show improve blood lipid profiles.

Additionally, in the "well-balanced but non-vegan group" the diet would have been substantially higher in starches than a gluten-free diet (a high carb diet), which raises insulin levels and skews blood lipids in a negative direction (raises triglycerides, raises LDL, especially the smaller, dense particles, reduces HDL, etc.)

And finally, non-vegan is a very vague term, that means little in terms of diet description except that it includes animal products. But are those animals raised on a natural, species appropriate diet (pasture) or on grain and agriculture "feed products" (makes a huge difference in many ways, including omega 3:6 ratio); with or without antibiotics and added growth hormones; with or without the natural fats, etc.

In short, this study is very poorly designed. Why is it that nutrition studies often seem to throw the most basic tenets of scientific rigor out the window?

Alix said...

I agree, Anna, the researchers certainly confounded a few variables, not the least of which was testing the gluten free and vegan diets together. You are absolutely right that a gluten-free diet ALONE probably would have achieved most of this same result. A vegan diet may have also, but if it were my call, I'd have tested the gluten free diet first.

I do like it when case-control studies on diet and disease are conducted at all, and when they are published in peer-reviewed medical journals (which I assume this journal is) it's all the better for the mainstream medical establishment to take notice that diet is the reason for most chronic disease.

You are absolutely right about the control group diet probably being heavy in starches and Omega 6s, but I don't have a bone to pick with the control group since it probably represents the typical American diet that people do eat.

It's so hard to control what people eat in a study, especially when the study REMOVES elements of a typical diet. People don't like giving up anything -- most can only tolerate adding something (like the obsession with soy) if they remember to eat it on a daily basis. At any rate, I think it's remarkable that researchers actually got 38 people to adhere to such a restrictive diet for 12 months. (Though I have no doubt there was cheating here and there unless they were sequestered!) And, to your point again, there probably would have been more compliance had they focused on one diet or the other - gluten-free OR vegan.

Alix said...

Here is how CBS news covered the story:

Lynn said...

Hi Anna
I looked up your blog after you left a comment on my site and I'd like to say that I'm glad I did.
Great reports and what an inspiration you are to others.
Lynn Berry

Alix said...

Thanks, Lynn. You rock. I think you meant "Alix" not "Anna" since I left the comment.

Keep on posting those great Natural News posts, Lynn. I'm reading!


Tough Cookie said...

Hi there! Great blog! I’m a 23 year old, former collegiate runner battling RSD (I'm pretty darn disabled myself right now). I hope you will check out my blog. It is my small attempt at creating awareness and spreading hope/inspiration for others who are suffering.

Tracy said...

This really was poorly designed. Aren't you supposed to change one thing at a time? Remove or add one variable?

If they'd compared a gluten-free vegan diet with a gluten-containing vegan diet, then perhaps we'd see if it was veganism or gluten that was the relevant factor. Gluten of course has already proven to be a factor in at least some instances of arthritis, RA in particular.

And everything Anna said ;) This study was comparing apples to plutonium.