Heart-healthy diet: Plant-based meat analogues no better than meat – Medical News Today

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That plant-based burger may not be better for your heart health than a regular one, new research argues. Image credit: Naomi Rahim/Getty Images.
  • As plant-based meat substitutes gain popularity, researchers in Singapore have conducted a study comparing their effects on health to those of traditional meats, with a specific focus on heart health and diabetes risk.
  • The research, involving 89 adults at risk for type 2 diabetes, found no significant heart health benefits of plant-based meat diets over those including animal meat, challenging the notion that these alternatives offer the same health advantages as whole plant-based diets.
  • Highlighting the nutritional differences between plant-based meat analogues and animal meats, the findings suggest a need for the food industry to develop nutritionally enhanced and environmentally sustainable plant-based meat substitutes.

In new research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists looked at how diets containing real meat compare to those using plant-based meat alternatives, especially in terms of cardiovascular health and diabetes risk.

Diets rich in plant-based foods have been found beneficial for heart and metabolic health, thanks to their wide variety of health-promoting components like vitamins, fibres and antioxidants.

However, for those who regularly eat meat, switching to such diets can be challenging due to deep-seated cultural, historical, and social influences on meat consumption, as well as socioeconomic factors.

Plant-based meat analogues (PBMAs) are designed to mimic the taste and texture of real meat using sustainable ingredients and are becoming increasingly popular worldwide.

This new research focused on comparing the effects of diets based on plant-based meat analogues (PBMAs) and traditional animal-based meats (ABMs) on the heart health of Singaporeans at a higher risk for type 2 diabetes.

The main question was whether replacing animal meat with PBMAs would improve heart health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases.

In this 8-week study involving 89 participants, half were asked to eat PBMAs, and the other half ate animal meats. The researchers looked at levels of bad cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure, among other health indicators.

The findings showed no significant changes in cholesterol profiles for either diet, but both diets were linked to improvements in some blood sugar markers.

There was no clear advantage of one diet over the other in improving heart health. However, in a smaller group that closely monitored their blood sugar, those eating animal meat managed their blood sugar levels better.

Blood pressure improvements were also noted in the animal meat group but not in the PBMA group.

This suggests that the benefits often associated with plant-based diets might not directly apply to PBMAs, as they differ nutritionally from whole plant foods and their impact on heart health.

Nutrient analysis showed that the animal meat diet provided more protein, while PBMAs were higher in sodium, potassium, and calcium.

The better blood sugar control seen in the animal meat group might be due to their lower carb and higher protein intake.

Although the study did not look into protein absorption, other research suggests that proteins from PBMAs might not be as easily absorbed as those from animal meats, affecting insulin and gut hormone responses differently.

Although PBMAs are becoming a more popular protein choice, this study’s findings don’t back the idea that these diets offer better heart and metabolic health benefits than diets that include animal meats.

It appears that adding PBMAs to one’s diet might change nutritional intake in ways that could negatively impact blood sugar control.

This suggests that the health advantages typically associated with plant-based diets should not be assumed to apply to PBMAs, given their different nutritional profiles and effects on heart and metabolic health.

These findings highlight an opportunity for the food industry to invest in creating new PBMAs that are not only focused on mimicking the taste and texture of meat but are also nutritionally superior and more easily absorbed by the body.

By shifting some focus towards improving the nutritional value and environmental sustainability of PBMAs, both manufacturers and consumers stand to gain.

Two experts, not involved in this research, spoke to Medical News Today.

Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN, a registered dietitian and founder of Dietitian Insights, said that “according to this study, a diet intervention with plant-based meat analogues did not show significant cardiometabolic health benefits over 8 weeks compared with omnivorous diets.”

“While this result may be unexpected to some, is not surprising that no benefits were observed when an unhealthy type of ultra-processed food was compared to animal-based foods,” she told us

That is likely because “plant-based meat analogues would fall into the less-healthy plant-based diet index category, which would not likely improve cardiometabolic health and may instead increase risk,” Costa explained.

“Beyond the limited duration and small sample size, one major issue with this study’s methodology was that the plant-based meat alternatives selected for this study were reportedly high in sodium and contained reheated seed oils,” she added.

“So, despite extensive fortifications of essential nutrients like vitamins B12 and D, iron, and zinc, the negative cardiometabolic effects of sodium and the potential oxidative stress from consuming reheated oils may outweigh any potential benefits from these particular plant-based meat analogues used in this study.

While there are potentially healthier plant-based meat alternatives on the market than the ones used in this study, consumers should keep in mind that these alternatives are often still heavily processed foods and should not be relied upon as the main source of protein in a healthy diet.”

– Kelsey Costa, MS, RDN

“Conversely, diets rich in minimally plant-based foods, including whole grains, legumes, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, and their bioactive compounds, have repeatedly been linked to better cardiometabolic health outcomes and a reduced risk of death from any cause,” Costa pointed out.

Haley Bishoff, RDN, LD, owner of Rūtsu Nutrition in Las Vegas, said that “developing a greater understanding of plant-based meat alternatives and their impact on health should be further explored, especially for those with high risk for chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease or diabetes.”

“As a registered dietitian, I encourage minimal consumption of processed foods in general, which include some plant-based meat alternatives and animal meats like sausage, hot dogs and ham,” Bishoff told us.

“Ideally, whole food options should be a primary protein source for both plant-based or omnivorous diets. Whole food diets tend to promote cardiometabolic health because they include more fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants.”

– Haley Bishoff, RDN, LD

Costa further noted that the current research highlights the “nutritional discrepancies between plant-based meat analogues, animal-based foods, and whole plant-based foods, despite advancements in processing techniques and carefully curated ingredients used to create plant-based meat alternatives.”

In conclusion, Costa said, “this research highlights the importance of understanding that not all plant-based diets are created equal.”

“While choosing more plant-based options can have health benefits, it is important to focus on whole, minimally processed foods rather than relying solely on ultra-processed alternatives,” she reiterated.

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