Fake Meat Isn’t Healthier for Your Heart

Plant-based meat may not be superior to regular meat when it comes to heart health, although it may be richer in some nutrients, according to a new study.

Global concerns about animal welfare and the impact of meat on the environment have fueled the interest in plant-based diets. In the United States, 4% of the population identifies as vegetarians and 1% as vegans, meaning that they don’t consume meat products.

Increasing interest has led to the expansion of the U.S. plant-based meat market, which was valued at $1.15 billion in 2022 and is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 23.9% from 2023 to 2030.

But are meat analogs always healthier than animal meat? A new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared their effects on cardiovascular health.

The study included 89 adults aged 30 to 70 with raised blood glucose but who were otherwise healthy. Half of them were instructed to eat plant-based meat analogs, such as Impossible Beef, Beyond burger and sausage, and Chickened Out Chunks for eight weeks. The rest ate different types of animal meat.

Both groups were encouraged to minimize their consumption of other protein-rich foods beyond those provided in the intervention.

After eight weeks, there were no significant differences between groups in the lipid-lipoprotein profile, including LDL cholesterol, known as “the bad” cholesterol.

While both groups saw improvements in some glucose control markers like fructosamine, glycemic management was more effective among those who ate animal meat. Researchers say these glycemic improvements may be explained by lower carbohydrate intake and increased protein consumption compared with the meat analog group.

Does plant-based meat have better nutrients?

The researchers also compared nutrients in plant-based and animal meats. Previous research has suggested that meat alternatives can be a great source of protein; however, some products often lack essential nutrients like iron, vitamin B12, and zinc.

The animal meat group had a higher protein intake of 226.2 g per 3-day cycle compared to 192 g in the meat analog group. Protein plays a significant role in the growth and maintenance of cells and tissues in the body, drives metabolic reactions, and keeps the immune system strong.

The plant-based meat was noticeably higher in carbohydrates and dietary fiber, as well as folate, calcium, and iron.

Fake meat products had more polyunsaturated fat, whereas animal meat trended toward higher monounsaturated fat. Both fats are considered healthy and associated with reduced levels of LDL cholesterol.

Compliance with the diet was slightly higher in the animal meat group than in the plant-based product group, with 95% and 87% of the participants completing the intervention, respectively.

A plant-based diet is healthy for you

The authors concluded that plant-based meat products do not have superior cardiometabolic health benefits compared with an omnivorous diet composed of animal-based meats. Moreover, daily incorporation of fake meat products may potentially compromise glycemic management.

However, the assumptions of health benefits from consuming fake meat products may not be directly extrapolated to those consuming a plant-based diet in general.

The benefits of a plant-based diet — not necessarily vegetarian or vegan, but focusing on fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and seeds — are well-established. The eating pattern may help lower body mass index, blood pressure, blood glucose, and cholesterol levels.

This can reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes, and improve the management of chronic conditions.

The American Heart Association (AHA) ranks the Mediterranean diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet among the best for heart health. Both eating patterns are rich in plant foods and include fish and lean meats.

Dr. Sumanto Haldar, a lecturer in nutrition science at Bournemouth University and a co-author of the study, called for improvements in the market of plant-based meat analogs to justify their superior health benefits.

Haldar said, “As it stands, the plant-based meat analog choices currently available in the market do not offer the same health advantages as a traditional plant-based diet, generally consisting of whole foods such as whole grains, legumes, and a plethora of fruits and vegetables.”

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