Incorporating an average of two servings of plant-based meat alternatives into one’s diet can lead to a reduction in certain cardiovascular risk factors compared to diets that rely on the same amount of animal meat, according to a study conducted by researchers at Stanford Medicine.
This research sheds light on the potential health benefits of substituting traditional red meat with plant-based alternatives, addressing concerns about the nutritional profile of vegan meat. Specifically, the study aimed to explore the impact of these products on cardiovascular health.
Is plant-based meat healthier?
It may seem obvious that a burger patty made of plants is a healthier option than a meat-based burger. However, some vegan meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat, are considered processed because they are made from food isolates and extracts rather than whole beans and chopped mushrooms.
Christopher Gardner, PhD, a professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and a longtime vegetarian, is a staunch proponent of eating whole foods, with a particular emphasis on vegetables. As some plant-based meats contain saturated fats and are classified as highly processed foods, Gardner wanted to study how they affect the body compared with red meat.
“There’s been this sort of backlash against these new meat alternatives,” Gardner said in a statement. “The question is, if you’re adding sodium and coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat, and using processed ingredients, is the product still actually healthy?”
To answer this question, Gardner and his team recruited over 30 participants and assigned them to follow two different diets, each for eight weeks. One group consumed at least two daily servings of animal meat, primarily red meat, while the other group consumed at least two daily servings of plant-based meat alternatives.
The study focused on measuring the levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in the participants’ bodies, a molecule associated with cardiovascular disease risk.
The team took precautions to eliminate bias throughout the study, including working with a third party at Stanford, the Quantitative Sciences Unit, to analyze the data once all participants had finished their 16-week dietary interventions.
Reducing TMAO levels
The results, which were published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and recently presented at the Good Food Conference, highlighted that TMAO levels were lower in participants who consumed plant-based meat.
TMAO is considered an emerging risk factor for cardiovascular disease, although the causal relationship is yet to be definitively established. It’s believed that TMAO levels may increase due to the presence of precursors like carnitine and choline found in red meat.
During the first eight weeks of the study, participants who consumed a red meat-based diet experienced an increase in TMAO levels, while those on the plant-based diet did not. However, when the groups switched diets, participants transitioning from meat to plant-based alternatives saw a decrease in TMAO levels, while those moving from plant-based to meat did not experience an increase in TMAO.
The surprising results led Gardner to speculate that certain gut bacteria responsible for producing TMAO may thrive in individuals with red meat-heavy diets but not in those who avoid meat altogether.
Additional health benefits of vegan meat
Beyond the reduction in TMAO levels, the study also revealed other health benefits associated with plant-based meat. Participants in both groups experienced an average drop of 10 milligrams per deciliter in LDL cholesterol levels, often referred to as “bad” cholesterol. This reduction is not only statistically significant but also clinically significant.
Furthermore, participants lost an average of two pounds during the plant-based portion of the diet, even though the study was not originally designed as a weight-loss study.
“The modest weight loss observed when participants substituted the plant-based meats in place of the red meats is an unexpected finding since this was not a weight-loss study,” Anthony Crimarco, PhD, the lead author of the study, said in a statement.
“I think this indicates the importance of diet quality. Not all highly processed foods are created equal,” Crimarco added.
While the study was financially supported by Beyond Meat, the company says it had no involvement in the design, execution, or analysis of the research.
This study, despite its relatively small size, provides valuable insights into the potential cardiovascular benefits of incorporating plant-based meat alternatives into one’s diet. While further research is needed to confirm these findings and explore their broader implications, the study contributes to the ongoing discussion about the role of diet in heart health.