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Are plant-based meat alternatives the key to a healthier heart?

If you’re a conscientious carnivore who’s been eyeing those plant-based burgers with a mix of curiosity and skepticism, you’re not alone. The debate over whether plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) are truly healthier than their animal-derived counterparts has been heating up.

A recent review article dives into the sizzling details, leaving us with food for thought – and perhaps a few adjustments to our shopping lists.

Rise of the plant-based patty

Plant-based meats have exploded in popularity in recent years, filling supermarket shelves with everything from “bleeding” burgers to chicken-less nuggets.

As more and more people embrace these alternatives, questions about their long-term health effects, especially on our tickers, have become increasingly relevant.

The review article, led by Dr. Matthew Nagra, aimed to address this knowledge gap by analyzing decades of research on PBMAs, their nutritional profiles, and their impact on heart health. The findings are a mixed bag, offering both good news and a few caveats for those considering a plant-based swap.

Sodium in plant-based meat alternatives

One of the key takeaways from the review is that plant-based meat alternatives tend to have a more heart-healthy nutritional profile than meat, on average. This is primarily due to their lower saturated fat content and higher fiber content.

However, before you ditch your steak for a soy-based substitute, it’s important to note that not all PBMAs are created equal. Some are surprisingly high in sodium, which can be a concern for those with blood pressure issues.

Despite the sodium caveat, the review found that PBMAs have been shown to improve certain cardiovascular risk factors, including cholesterol levels.

In several randomized controlled trials, people who consumed PBMAs experienced a significant reduction in total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides, while also boosting their HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels.

The missing piece

While the short-term benefits of PBMAs on heart health are promising, the long-term effects remain a mystery.

“The lack of research on cardiovascular outcomes as of 2023 is shocking, given that there are randomized controlled trials evaluating risk factors dating back to 1990,” noted Dr. Nagra.

This means we don’t yet know for sure whether switching to PBMAs will actually reduce your risk of heart attacks or strokes in the long run.

Another surprising finding from the review is the lack of research on vital wheat gluten (seitan), a primary protein source in many PBMAs.

“The near-complete lack of research on vital wheat gluten and cardiovascular risk factors is surprising,” said Dr. Nagra. This highlights the need for more studies to fully understand the impact of all PBMA ingredients on our hearts.

Verdict on plant-based meat alternatives

So, where does this leave us? Should we be embracing PBMAs as the holy grail of heart health, or should we be sticking to our tried-and-true animal proteins?

The answer, as with most things in nutrition, isn’t black and white. If you’re looking to reduce your meat intake, especially red meat, replacing it with PBMAs could be a heart-healthy move.

However, if you already eat a balanced diet with limited meat, PBMAs can still be a part of a healthy lifestyle, but choose options lower in saturated fat and sodium.

“For those looking to reduce their meat intake, especially if it’s red meat, replacing that with PBMAs is likely a heart-healthy choice,” noted study senior author Dr. Ehud Ur.

“For those who already limit their meat intake, PBMAs can be incorporated into a healthy dietary pattern as an excellent protein source; however, it may be beneficial to choose options that are lower in saturated fat and sodium if consuming them regularly.”

Ultimately, the best diet for your heart is one that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein sources, whether they come from plants or animals. PBMAs can be a part of this healthy eating pattern, but they’re not a magic bullet.

Remember, a balanced diet, regular exercise, and a healthy lifestyle are the key ingredients for a happy heart.

The study is published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology.


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