July 17, 2024

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Plant-based alternatives better than real meat

5 min read

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Experts say some plant-based foods are ultra-processed but are still healthier for your heart than real meat. ClarkandCompany/Getty Images
  • Researchers report that plant-based meat alternatives offer greater improvement to cardiovascular risk factors when compared with real meat.
  • They say that plant-based meat alternatives can improve cholesterol levels and have not been linked to higher blood pressure, despite the sodium content of some products.
  • While plant-based meat alternatives are often ultra-processed, experts say they are lower in saturated fats and higher in fiber when compared to real meat.

Plant-based meat alternatives improve cardiovascular risk factors when compared with animal meat.

That’s according to a review of studies published today in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology that reports that while there is considerable variability in the nutrition profile of plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs), they tend to have a more heart healthy nutrition profile when compared with real meat.

“Commercially available PBMAs are nutritionally diverse but generally have a cardioprotective nutritional profile relative to meat, including less saturated fatty acid and more fiber per serving. The available randomized clinical trials evaluating PBMAs are promising and suggest that replacing meat with PBMAs can improve cardiovascular disease (CVD) risk factors, including a reduction in low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C),” the study authors wrote.

“PBMAs do not seem to negatively affect other CVD risk factors such as blood pressure, despite their classification as ultra processed foods and the high sodium content of many products,” the researchers added. “These improvements in CVD risk factors may result in a lower risk of developing CVD; however, there is a need for high-quality long-term studies evaluating CVD outcomes.”

Plant-based meat alternatives are typically highly processed food products made of plant-based ingredients that can be used to replace meat in the diet.

The study authors reviewed research on plant-based meat alternatives from 1970 to 2023 to assess what is known about the nutritional profile of these foods as well as their impact on cardiovascular disease risk factors such as blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

The researchers reported that several studies indicate that plant-based meat alternatives could improve cardiovascular risk factors like cholesterol levels. They also found the foods have not been linked to increased blood pressure, despite the high levels of sodium in some plant-based meat alternatives.

“For those looking to reduce their meat intake, especially if it’s red meat, replacing that with PBMAs is likely a heart-healthy choice. For those who already limit their meat intake, PBMAs can be incorporated into a healthy dietary pattern as an excellent protein source; however, it may be beneficial to choose options that are lower in saturated fat and sodium if consuming them regularly,” Dr. Ehud Ur, a senior author of the study and a professor in the Division of Endocrinology & Metabolism at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said in a press statement.

Christopher Gardner, PhD, is the chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee as well as a professor of medicine and researcher in nutrition at Stanford University in California.

He told Medical News Today that there are many qualities that can make plant-based meat alternatives a healthy choice when compared with meat.

“Saturated fat is lower, unsaturated fat is higher and fiber is higher in the PBMA relative to animal meat – all of those would suggest being “healthier” for cardiometabolic risk factors than animal meat,” said Gardner, who was not involved in the research.

“Meat and animal foods contain carnitine and choline, which are precursors for TMAO, and those are absent in PBAM. TMAO has emerged as a potentially important new risk factor for heart disease. That could be another reason for a plausible benefit of PBMA,” he added.

Trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) is a substance that is produced when red meat is digested. It may raise the risk of cardiovascular problems.

In 2020, Gardner was part of a research study that compared plant-based meat alternatives with real meat.

“The Beyond Meat lowered LDL-cholesterol, TMAO and weight, relative to animal meat,” he said.

The American Heart Association advises that a heart healthy diet should emphasize minimally processed foods.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian supervisor at RR-UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, says it is unexpected that ultra-processed plant-based meat alternatives could be beneficial for the heart.

“While I’ve been long-aware that plant-based foods are associated with improved cardiovascular risk factors, the notion that a highly processed one could also be, is somewhat surprising. Though pleasantly surprising,” Hunnes, who wasn’t involved in the research, told Medical News Today.

“I still wouldn’t call highly processed plant-based meat alternatives ‘healthy.’ However, we could call them healthier than meat/egg/animal products,” Hunnes said. “What I usually tell people is that any highly processed food should be limited in the diet because when it’s highly processed, the healthy fibers, micronutrients, and vitamins are often stripped from the original food (and then sometimes put back through fortification or enrichment after the fact). Also, highly processed foods are digested and absorbed at a faster rate than whole plant-based foods. With that being said, just as I tell people to make meat a rare part of their diet, I also suggest people make plant-based meat alternatives fairly rare in their diet.”

In an accompanying editorial published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, Dr. David Spence, a professor emeritus of neurology and clinical pharmacology at Western University and the director of the Stroke Prevention & Atherosclerosis Research Centre at Robarts Research Institute in Ontario, says plant-based meat alternatives may be helpful for those who need to reduce intake of meat or eggs.

“Persons at risk of cardiovascular disease should limit meat intake and avoid egg yolk, so plant-based meat substitutes and egg substitutes are helpful to patients wishing to reduce their cardiovascular risk,” Spence wrote.

Gardner argues that although PBMAs can be highly processed or ultra processed, that should not detract from their potential benefits when being used in place of meat.

“For decades public health professionals have advised Americans to eat less meat. Americans have eaten, and continue to eat, more animal meat than almost any country in the world. Public health efforts to move the needle on this have had very limited success. The new generation of PBMAs have taken the approach of not simply being an alternative, but being an alternative that looks, smells and tastes as similar as possible to animal meat, with the hope of making it more likely that people would choose this over animal meat,” Gardner said.

“Healthy vs. unhealthy is a false dichotomy. Good vs. evil is the same. Unprocessed vs. ultraprocessed is the same,” he added. “Some foods that can be characterized as meeting the criteria for ‘ultraprocessed’ have a better nutrient profile than others. Some PBMA happen to have a better nutrient profile than many of the other ultra-processed foods. If demonizing PBMAs because they are ultra-processed foods leads people to consume animal meat instead of PBMAs, I think this is an inappropriate use of the intention of cautioning people against ultra-processed foods.”

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