June 14, 2024

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Plant-Based Meats No Better Than Animal Meat for Heart Health

4 min read

Plant-based meats are often touted as heart-healthy, but a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows they may be no better for the cardiovascular system than the real thing.

The research found that people who ate a diet with a high amount of plant-based meat analogs, or PBMAs, over eight weeks experienced no significant difference in their cardiometabolic health than those who ate meat during that time. The PBMAs included products from popular brands like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. 

Higher meat intake has long been associated with a heightened risk of heart disease. While plant-based diets have, on the other hand, been linked to a boost in heart health, the study suggests that not all plant-derived products are created equal.

Specifically, highly processed faux meats don’t appear to have the same impact on heart health as whole or minimally processed plant protein sources, senior study author Jeya Henry, PhD, of the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation (SIFBI), told Health.

“There is an assumption by consumers that the health benefits of a plant-based diet (i.e., rich in legumes, whole grains, nuts, and fruits) are the same as consuming plant-based meat analogs,” he said in an email. “Our study clearly illustrates the need to improve the nutritional properties of PBMA in order that consumers can enjoy both the gustatory and nutritional attributes of PBMAs in the future.”

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Researchers recruited 82 pre-diabetic people in Singapore, all of whom were ethnically Chinese. None of the participants, who ranged in age from 30 to 70, were vegans or vegetarians. 

The team divided participants into two groups. For eight weeks, one group ate fixed quantities of beef, pork, or chicken breast. The other group ate an assortment of plant-based meat analogs from OmniFoods and The Vegetarian Butcher in addition to Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat products.

Researchers took blood tests at the beginning and end of the study to measure changes to cardiometabolic health markers. Some participants also wore a continuous glucose monitor during the eight weeks.

The scientists found that swapping out meat for PBMAs didn’t appear to make participants healthier.

Changes to total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol), HDL cholesterol (“good” cholesterol), and triglycerides were similar among people in the two groups. What’s more, meat-eaters actually had better blood glucose and blood pressure management than faux-meat eaters, study author Darel Wee Kiat Toh, PhD, a nutrition scientist at the Singapore Institute of Food and Biotechnology Innovation, told Health.

“We deduced no clear cardiometabolic health benefits of diets that substituted animal-based meats with corresponding PBMAs as the primary protein source,” Toh said.

According to Toh, a key takeaway is that brands should make their plant-based meat products not just sustainable but more nutritionally beneficial than eating meat. “It is vital for the food industry to reevaluate the development of next-generation alternative protein foods that are also nutritious and affordable for everyone,” he said.

Experts who weren’t involved with the research said they weren’t shocked by the results.

“I’m not surprised at all, given the types of products that they tested,” Sean Heffron, MD, a cardiologist at the Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease at NYU Langone Heart, told Health. “Recently developed plant-based meats contain additions to the plant-derived proteins that portend cardiovascular risk—specifically fats and sodium.” 

Saturated fat in plant-based meats, often derived from coconut, increases LDL cholesterol. And a high-sodium diet can raise blood pressure, leading to greater heart disease risk. 

Ahmed Ansari, MD, a cardiologist at Memorial Hermann Health System, agreed that many PBMDs contain additives that may offset any health benefits.

Before you throw out your meatless burgers, keep in mind that the study didn’t find meatless alternatives to be any worse than real meat for heart health—merely that they weren’t all that different.

It’s also important to remember that the study is unlikely to be the final word on how plant-based meats impact the heart.

That’s because the study was small and short, Ansari pointed out, making it difficult to know for sure how these foods may affect people. It’s also questionable whether the results would apply to people of non-Chinese descent, though Heffron said there’s no reason to suspect that the research wouldn’t be broadly applicable. “I’ve certainly seen it anecdotally in my own patients,” he added.

And even if meatless products don’t give you the heart health boost you were hoping for, there’s always the environment to consider. A 2023 study found that, on average, plant-based meats have a 50% lower environmental impact than animal meat, making them by far a more sustainable choice.

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