Scientists have discovered that genetic mutations in long-term vegetarians raise the risk of heart disease and cancer. They believe that the mutations occurred to enable vegetarians to absorb essential fatty acids from plants.
The findings, published in the Journal of Molecular Biology and Evolution indicate that populations that followed a primarily vegetarian diet for many generations were found to be likely to carry the DNA which makes them susceptible to inflammation due to the production of arachidonic acid. Basically, the body converts fatty acids from plants to dangerous arachidonic acid that has pro-inflammatory properties.
In the study, researchers from the Cornell University in the US compared the genes of vegetarian populations in Pune, India to the high meat-diet populations in Kansas and found a significant difference in the genes linked to fat metabolism.
“Those whose ancestry derives from vegetarians are more likely to carry genetics that more rapidly metabolise plant fatty acids,” said Tom Brenna, Professor of Human Nutrition at Cornell University.
Furthermore, the mutation acts against the production of omega-3-fatty acids that are protective against heart disease.
The mutation is called rs66698963 and is found in the FADS2 gene which controls the production of fatty acids in the body.
“In such individuals, vegetable oils will be converted to the more pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid, increasing the risk for chronic inflammation that is implicated in the development of heart disease, and exacerbates cancer.” explained Brenna.
Although scientists are not able to put a finger on the exact time at which these mutations may have occurred, the major shift in diet rich from omega-3 to omega-6-fatty acids has likely worsened the problem.
“Changes in the dietary Omega 6 to Omega 3 balance may contribute to the increase in chronic disease seen in some developing countries,” added Dr Brenna.
However, the solution to this is pretty simple. Avoiding food rich in omega-6-fatty acids and shifting to alternatives rich in omega-3-fatty acid such as olive oil would help prevent long term effects of this mutation.
This study probably explains previous research that found that vegetarian populations are nearly 40 per cent more likely to suffer from colorectal cancer than meat eaters.
Adding to this, there have been other studies on the negative impacts of vegetarianism on fertility and vitamin deficiency, however other research suggests that vegetarianism lowers the risk of diabetes, stroke and obesity.