Health & Fitness

Meat Alternatives Good For Your Heart?

Kristen Sparrow • July 10, 2024

Colorful and tasty burger on a homemade wooden cutting board and dark background

I was happy to see this article!  I know that many worry about the downsides of fake meat, that they are an ultraprocessed food, but I find them to be a fantastic alternative for spagetti, for a quick sandwich, or outdoor barbecue.  I applaud the movement that urges people to cut back on meat even just a little bit!.  From a humanitarian, health, and most of all climate change standpoint it is a powerful thing to do.

  • Cardiovascular Benefits of Plant-Based Meat Alternatives (PBMAs): Replacing meat with Plant-Based Meat Alternatives can improve cardiovascular disease risk factors such as LDL cholesterol, triglycerides, and blood pressure.
  • Nutritional Profile and Health Implications: PBMAs contain less saturated fat and cholesterol compared to meat, along with more fiber and polyunsaturated fats. Despite concerns about their classification as ultraprocessed foods and high sodium content, current evidence suggests that the potential cardiovascular benefits of PBMAs outweigh these concerns.
  • Need for More Research: There is a lack of long-term clinical outcome trials to conclusively determine the health benefits and risks of PBMAs. More extensive research, potentially funded by national health organizations, is necessary to evaluate their impact on cardiovascular events and the healthfulness of common PBMA components like vital wheat gluten.
  • Think of Climate Impacts  Dr. Ur says “Meat is a very expensive source of food energy. As an individual, the biggest impact you can make on global warming is to not eat meat.
Replacing meat with plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) can improve cardiovascular disease risk factors, including low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C), a review of randomized controlled trials suggested.Long-term randomized controlled trials and prospective cohort studies that evaluate cardiovascular disease events such as myocardial infarction and stroke are needed to draw definitive conclusions, according to the authors.“Our take-home is that plant-based meats are a healthy alternative to animal meat, based on intermediate cardiovascular endpoints such as lipids, triglycerides, blood pressure, and other cardiovascular disease risk factors,” said senior author Ehud Ur, MB, professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, in Canada, and an endocrinologist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver.

“However, we also found that there’s a lack of clinical outcome trials that would determine definitively whether plant-based meats are healthy. But certainly, everything points in the direction of cardiovascular benefit,” said Dr. Ur.

The review was published on June 25 in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.

Ultraprocessed Foods

PBMAs are foods that mimic meats and contain ingredients such as protein derivatives from soy, pea, wheat, and fungi. A growing number of Canadians are limiting meat or excluding it from their diets. Some are opting to eat PBMAs instead.

But most PBMAs are classified as ultraprocessed foods. Such foods are produced primarily from substances extracted from whole food sources, such as sugar, salt, oil, and protein. Alternatively, they may be created in a laboratory using flavor enhancers and food coloring. This classification has caused the public and health professionals to question the potential health implications of PBMAs, said Dr. Ur.

“One of the concerns is that these products are highly processed, and things that are highly processed are considered bad. And so, are you swapping one set of risks for another?” he said.

To shed more light on this question, Dr. Ur’s team, which was led by Matthew Nagra, ND, of the Vancouver Naturopathic Clinic, assessed the literature on PBMAs and their impact on health.

“While the plant-based meat market has experienced significant growth in recent years and more and more Canadians are enjoying plant-based burgers, surprisingly little is known about how these meat alternatives may impact health and, in particular, cardiovascular disease risk,” Dr. Nagra said in a statement. “Thus, we sought to review the available literature on the topic to identify what is currently known and to provide direction for future research.”

Less Saturated Fat, Cholesterol

The researchers assessed the literature that was published from 1970 to 2023 on PBMAs, their contents, nutritional profiles, and impact on cardiovascular disease risk factors, such as cholesterol levels and blood pressure.

They found that, compared with meat, PBMAs had less saturated fat, less cholesterol, more fiber, more carbohydrates, fewer calories, less monounsaturated fat, more polyunsaturated fat, and more sodium.

In addition, several randomized controlled trials showed that PBMAs reduced total cholesterol and LDL-C, as well as apolipoprotein B-100, body weight, and waist circumference. PBMAs were not shown to raise blood pressure, despite some products’ high sodium content.

“No currently available evidence suggests that the concerning aspects of PBMAs (eg, food processing and high sodium content) negate the potential cardiovascular benefits,” wrote the researchers.

Unfortunately, no long-term research has evaluated how these alternatives may affect the risk of developing a myocardial infarction or stroke. Similarly, there is little research on the healthfulness of some common components of PBMAs, such as vital wheat gluten.

To shed light on these important issues would require large clinical trials, involving many patients, and great expense, said Dr. Ur. “Drug companies can afford to do large clinical trials, even if they are expensive to do, because they must do them to get approval for their drug. But these plant-based meats are produced by companies that most likely are not able to do clinical outcome trials. Such trials would have to be done by the National Institutes of Health in the United States, or in Canada, the National Research Council,” he said.

There are many reasons to avoid meat, Dr. Ur added. “There are ethical reasons against killing animals. Then there is the issue of global warming. Meat is a very expensive source of food energy. As an individual, the biggest impact you can make on global warming is to not eat meat. Then there is the argument about personal health, which is where our study comes in. For those people who like the taste of meat and who struggle with giving it up, the PBMAs allow them to have a reasonably diverse diet,” he said.