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A new study by researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine has found that swapping out animal meat for plant-based meat alternatives can help lower some cardiovascular risk factors. The findings defend plant-based meat substitutes developed by food tech brands against suggestions that these novel products are less healthy than conventional meat.
Published last week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the new Stanford study reveals that ditching animal proteins for plant-based meat could lead to a drop in LDL cholesterol and reduce levels of TMAO in adults. The small-scale research, called the “swap meat study”, involved 36 participants over 16 weeks, and there were no other dietary interventions except swapping between animal and plant proteins.
High levels of LDL cholesterol, often known as “bad” cholesterol, is associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease, chest pain and heart attack, while elevated TMAO levels is linked to atherosclerotic vascular diseases and increased risk of adverse cardiovascular events.
The participants were split into two groups. Half of the cohort ate at least two servings of plant-based meats per week, while the other ate at least two servings of animal meat (a combination of beef, pork and chicken) per week. After an 8-week period, the two groups crossed over and swapped dietary interventions.
On average, participants’ “bad” cholesterol levels dropped 10.8 milligrams per decilitre when on the plant-based meat diet. TMAO levels were also lower when the participants ate plant-based meat, while sodium and blood pressure levels remained largely the same throughout.
“For the participants who had the plant-based diet first, during which they ate no meat, we basically made them vegetarians, and in so doing, may have inadvertently blunted their ability to make TMAO,” said Dr. Christopher Gardner, professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center and lead researcher of the research.
“Whether this type of approach could be used as a strategy for decreasing cardiovascular disease risk remains to be seen.”
The study was funded by plant-based food tech Beyond Meat and the National Institutes of Health. Beyond Meat was not involved with the research design, conduct or data analysis, the latter of which was conducted by the Quantitative Sciences Unit to eradicate bias.
These findings are particularly relevant for health conscious consumers who may have previously been deterred from opting for novel plant-based meats due to the belief that these products are less healthful than conventional animal proteins. While plant-based substitutes have been able to communicate its sustainability benefits compared to traditional meats, many food tech brands have had less success convincing skeptics about the health advantages of their products amid the backlash against its processed nature and ingredients such as saturated fat-rich coconut oil.
Other studies so far have shown that switching to plant whole food proteins, such as beans, legumes, grains and seeds, have been linked to a lower risk of death from a number of chronic illnesses.
In July, researchers from Tehran University found that diets high in plant protein was associated with a reduced risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and stroke. Meanwhile, regularly consuming red meat and other animal proteins is associated with several health problems and higher mortality rate from all causes.
It supports the results of another recent study, conducted by the National Cancer Institute in the U.S., which found an “inverse association” between higher consumption of plant-based foods and heart disease mortality rates. The most prominent inverse associations were recorded in the replacement of eggs and red meat with pulses and grains.
Lead image courtesy of Beyond Meat.