Swapping out red meat for plant-based meat alternatives lowers cardiovascular risk

Cardiovascular disease is an umbrella term used to define conditions affecting the heart and blood vessels and is usually linked to the build-up of fatty deposits and a heightened risk of blood clots.

Among the cardiovascular diseases, ischemic heart disease and stroke are the world's biggest killers, accounting for 15.2 million deaths in 2016 alone. Over the past 15 years, these diseases have been the leading causes of deaths across the globe.

Meat like plant-based patties. Image Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock
Meat like plant-based patties. Image Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock

Previous studies have shown that eating red meat is considered a major dietary risk factor for cardiovascular disease, including coronary heart disease.

Now, a new study by researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine has revealed that swapping out red meat for certain plant-based meat alternatives can help improve some cardiovascular risk factors. The use of plant-based alternative meats, there is still limited evidence of the health effects of these products.

"There's been this sort of backlash against these new meat alternatives," Gardner said. "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?" Dr. Christopher Gardner, professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, said.

The study

The team aimed to compare the effect of eating plant-based alternative meat as opposed to animal meat on health factors. The study, named SWAP-MEAT (The Study With Appetizing Plant food – Meat Eating Alternatives Trial), was a single-site, randomized crossover trial.

The participants in the study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, received both plant-based alternative meat (plant) and animal meat (animal), dietary counseling, laboratory assessments, microbiome assessments, and anthropometric measurements.

More than 30 participants joined the study, and they were assigned two different diets, each of one for eight weeks. One diet comprises of two daily servings of meat, primarily red meat, and the other group had at least two daily servings of plant-based meat.

The team, however, made sure to eradicate bias throughout the study by working with a third party at Stanford, the Quantitative Sciences Unit, to analyze the data. The study was funded by Beyond Meat, which makes plant-based meat alternatives, but the company was not involved in the design and conduct of the study. It was also not included in the data analysis.

"The QSU helped us draw up a statistical analysis plan, which we published online before the study was completed, That way our plan was public, and we were accountable for the specific primary and secondary outcomes that we had initially said we wanted to go after -- namely, the participants' levels of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), blood cholesterol, blood pressure, and weight," Gardner said.

The study findings

The team also measures the levels of the molecule called trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which has been tied to cardiovascular disease risk. The team had found that TMAO levels were lower when the participants consumed plant-based meat.

"Among generally healthy adults, contrasting Plant with Animal intake, while keeping all other dietary components similar, the Plant products improved several cardiovascular disease risk factors, including TMAO; there were no adverse effects on risk factors from the Plant products," the researchers concluded.

At the end of the first eight weeks, the two teams switched diets. The researchers revealed that those who had a switch from meat to plant-based meat had reduced TMAO levels, but those who had initially consumed plant-based meat had no increase in TMAO levels.

The researchers said that it would not matter what order the diets were in, but the findings show that there are bacterial species in the gut that products TMAO, which are thought to thrive in people whose diets are packed with red meat, but not in people who seldom or do not eat meat.

Other health benefits

The team did not just see the effects of plant-based meat on TMAO levels, but also the health benefits extended to weight and levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or the bad cholesterol. The participants in the plant-based meat group experienced a weight loss of 2 pounds on average. Meanwhile, the levels of LDL cholesterol dropped an average of 10 milligrams per deciliter regardless of which diet they had first.

The team aims to study more about the link between health and plant-based meat alternatives, focusing on their effects on the gut microbiome.

Journal reference:
Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Written by

Angela Betsaida B. Laguipo

Angela is a nurse by profession and a writer by heart. She graduated with honors (Cum Laude) for her Bachelor of Nursing degree at the University of Baguio, Philippines. She is currently completing her Master's Degree where she specialized in Maternal and Child Nursing and worked as a clinical instructor and educator in the School of Nursing at the University of Baguio.


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