Plant-Based Meat Substitutes May Not Be More Healthful Than Meat

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Extensive research has found that a plant-based diet is significantly less likely than a meat-based diet to be associated with increased risk for heart attacks or diabetes (American J of Preventive Cardiology, Sept 2021;7:100182). Entrepreneurs in the plant-meat industry have stepped in and added chemicals to processed parts of plants to make a plant-based food that looks and tastes like meat. However, very recently, Singapore researchers found no evidence that plant-based meat substitutes are less likely than animal meats to increase heart attack or diabetes risk (Amer J Of Clin Nutr, April 8, 2024). The researchers studied 89 people at high risk for diabetes. Roughly half were placed on a diet that included plant-based-meat products and the rest were placed on a diet with animal meats. After eight weeks, blood cholesterol (including total cholesterol, the good HDL, the bad LDL, triglycerides), continuous blood sugar monitoring (glucose and fructosamine), blood pressure (systolic and diastolic), inflammation (high sensitivity C-reactive protein) and body composition were not different between the two groups. The animal meat group had a slightly lower blood sugar level. The animal-meat group took in more protein and the plant-based meat group took in more sodium, potassium and calcium.

Why Plant-Based Meats May Not Be Healthful
The authors did not offer their opinions on why the plant-based meats may not offer health advantages over eating regular animal meat. Plant-based meats are highly processed, which means that they may contain additives to make the food taste better, feel better on your tongue and break down faster in your intestines. Plant-based meats are higher in added salt and are fortified with reheated plant oils that contain aldehydes and free radicals that cause inflammation to increase risk for heart attacks (Vascul Pharmacol, 2014 Apr;61(1):1-9), cancer (Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 2019;59(3):488-505), dementia (J of Biological Chemistry, April 2024;300(4) and diabetes (J Biochem Mol Toxicol, 2003;17(1):24-38).

A U.S. government health survey estimates that if North Americans reduced their intake of processed meats by 30 percent in the next 10 years, there would be 1.1 million fewer cases of diabetes in the U.S., 382,400 fewer cases of heart disease and 84,400 fewer cases of colon cancer. A 30 percent reduction of mammal meat (1/4 pound per week) would yield 732,000 fewer cases of diabetes, 291,500 fewer cases of heart disease and 32,200 fewer cases of colon cancer (The Lancet Planetary Health Journal, July 3, 2024;8(7):e441-e451). Mammal meat includes beef, pork and lamb; processed meats include bacon, salami, bologna and other deli meats, hot dogs and so forth.

My Recommendations
Extensive research shows that a plant-based diet appears to be more healthful than a diet with lots of meat. Therefore, food entrepreneurs have made plant-based foods that look and taste like meat. A very recent eight-week study found no real health benefits from eating plant-based meat over eating regular animal meat. The plant-based meats on the market today are usually highly-processed and contain additives to make them taste good. Many contain extra sugar, salt, flavor enhancers, preservatives and color enhancers that have not even been tested yet for safety. Scientists have found an association between some highly-processed foods and heart attacks, certain cancers, diabetes, obesity, certain gastrointestinal diseases and premature death. At this time, scientists do not know all of the advantages and disadvantages of eating plant-based meats. I will continue to monitor these studies.