Plant-based meat substitutes could be healthier for the center than real meat

Plant-based meat alternatives could also be healthier for the center than meat, despite their highly processed quality, in line with a brand new report.

A review of previous studies found that risk aspects for heart disease, including total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and body weight improved when various forms of animal meat were replaced with a plant-based substitute, in line with the article published Wednesday within the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.

“Plant-based meat is a healthy alternative that is clearly associated with a reduction in cardiovascular risk factors,” said the study's lead writer, Dr. Ehud Ur, professor of medication on the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

The latest study, which evaluated studies from 1970 to 2023, also found that there are large differences in nutrients amongst meat substitutes, comparable to the quantity of sodium and saturated fat they contain.

One of the clinical trials cited by the researchers found that when participants consumed plant-based alternatives, they experienced a 13% reduction in total cholesterol, a 9% reduction in LDL cholesterol, a 53% reduction in triglycerides, and an 11% increase in HDL cholesterol.

Ur and his colleagues focused on two brands of burgers – an older one and a more moderen one which more closely resembled beef flavor. The older brand's burger contained 6% of the really helpful each day amount of saturated fat, in comparison with 30% for the newer company's burger. Likewise, the older brand contained 0% cholesterol, in comparison with 27% of the really helpful each day amount for the newer brand.

The latest report adds one other layer to the query of how plant-based burgers affect health.

Most meat substitutes are highly processed. Ultra-processed foods normally contain little fiber and are loaded with salt, sugar and additives. In addition, a higher risk of heart disease and premature death.

A study published this month in Lancet Regional Health – Europe suggested that eating plant-based, highly processed foods – including meat substitutes – could increase the danger of heart attacks and strokes. However, the study did circuitously compare meat alternatives with real meat.

Ur countered that not all ultra-processed foods are unhealthy and that the term shouldn’t be a death sentence for a food.

“In and of itself, processing is not necessarily a bad thing,” Ur said. “It is true that these plant-based meats are highly processed, but not in the sense that they contain a lot of saturated fats or certain carbohydrates that are associated with negative consequences.”

What is required is a randomized trial comparing the danger of heart attacks and strokes in individuals who eat meat substitutes with that of people that recurrently eat meat, Ur said.

“Of course, it might be difficult to do a double-blind study because people might be able to tell if they're eating meat or an alternative,” he said. “But some of the newer plant-based meats are very close in taste to real meat.”

Dr. Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition on the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, said that while some plant-based alternatives could also be higher for the center than meat, “in general, eating whole foods would be the best option.”

According to Willett, the healthiest whole foods are a mix of:

  • nuts
  • Seeds
  • Soy products and other legumes
  • full grain
  • Vegetables
  • fruit
  • Liquid vegetable oils, comparable to olive oil

A vegetarian or pescatarian weight loss program “would include a modest amount of dairy and eggs, as well as fish about twice a week,” Willett said.

But not everyone seems to be ready for that. “So I think there's room for foods that could be called ultra-processed,” he said.

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He referred to a study The study, published within the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2020, involved participants consuming meat for eight weeks and a plant-based meat alternative for eight weeks.

When participants ate the meat alternative, “cholesterol and blood pressure dropped by about 10%, which is pretty significant,” Willett said. “Just because something falls under the definition of ultra-processed doesn't mean it's bad.”

The differences in plant-based meat alternatives have to be taken under consideration, said Marie-Pierre St-Onge, associate professor of dietary medicine at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. For example, the quantity of saturated fat in a meat alternative is dependent upon the brand.

“Consumers need to be more aware of nutritional labels and better informed,” St-Onge said. “If a plant-based burger contains 35 to 40 percent of your daily sodium intake, it's not for you if you have high blood pressure.”

Dr. Anu Lala, director of heart failure research at Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital in New York, said longer follow-up studies are needed to find out whether plant-based meat alternatives are healthier.

“It requires a concerted effort – as has already been made the Mediterranean diet – to understand plant-based nutrition programs and their long-term effects,” said Lala.

For a healthier alternative, she suggested the label of a meat substitute:

  • Sodium content
  • Amount of saturated fat
  • Protein source, comparable to peas or soy
  • Gluten, for individuals with intolerance
  • Artificial sweeteners

People are desperately searching for easy solutions and attempting to make specific dietary changes, but a single food doesn’t make the weight loss program healthier overall, says Lala.

“We need to take a holistic approach that includes a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables and exercise,” she said.

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