A long-term vegetarian diet can lead to a genetic mutation that can make one more susceptible to inflammation and therefore have a greater risk of heart disease and cancer, a new study has warned.

Researchers from Cornell University linked this mutation to 70 percent of the members of a mostly vegetarian group from Pune, India, compared with less than 20 percent in a traditional meat-consuming American population.

The mutation, known as rs66698963 and found in the FADS2 gene, is believed to help vegetarians efficiently absorb of essential fatty acids (EFAs) from plants. This, however, also enhances the creation of arachidonic acid, which is linked to an increase in inflammatory diseases such as heart disease and colon cancer.

Paired with a diet filled with vegetable oils, this mutated gene rapidly converts fatty acids into arachidonic acid.

These results can likely explain why vegetarian populations emerge in previous studies as almost 40 percent more prone to colorectal cancer than meat consumers – a puzzling finding since red meat consumption is also implicated in a higher risk for that condition.

According to study author Dr. Tom Brenna, in people whose ancestry is rooted in vegetarianism, vegetable oils convert into the more inflammation-inducing arachidonic acid, which will then up the risk for inflammation – something long implicated in heart disease as well as cancer development.

The researchers, using data from the 1000 Genomes Project, added that the mutation occurred in the human genome a long time ago and was then transferred through generations.

It could get worse: this gene mutation also prevents the creation of omega-3 fats, which have protective benefits against heart illness.

Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, diets have shifted from omega-3-rich foods (including fatty fish and nuts) to less healthy omega-6 sources such as vegetable oils.

“Changes in the dietary omega-6 to omega-3 balance may contribute to the increase in chronic disease seen in some developing countries,” explains Brenna, who urged using vegetable oils like olive oil, which is low in omega-6s.

The findings were published in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.

Previous studies highlighted the various nutrient deficiencies occurring among vegetarians, including a lack of iron, protein, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium.

Missing out on essential nutrients are putting them at risk for neurological disorders, anemia and other health conditions, warned a review from Mayo Clinic physicians just this month.

Photo: Moyan Brenn | Flickr

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