Plant-based meat no better for you than the real thing, study finds

If you want to protect your heart health – or avoid diabetes – it’s a good idea to limit your consumption of red meat. But if you’re looking for a replacement, are plant-based meat alternatives any better for you than the real thing?

It’s no secret that cardiovascular problems remain the leading cause of death among Australians. Our diets play a huge role in this statistic, in particular, how much red meat we eat.

At the same time, approximately one in 20 of us (around 1.3 million) are living with type 2 diabetes, placing a significant burden of disease on the healthcare system.

How are the two conditions linked?

Your risk of developing both cardiovascular disease and diabetes is heavily impacted by how much red meat you eat.

According to the Heart Foundation, adults should be eating no more than 350g of red meat per week, but the average Aussie is eating 1.6 times that amount.

Diabetes Australia is a bit more lenient, recommending no more than 455g per week.

But, for many of us (me included), the prospect of giving up steak, sausages and hamburgers is not a very pleasant one.

Chicken, eggs and seafood are all healthier alternatives to red meat, but what about plant-based meat alternatives? Is it possible to get the taste and texture of red meat, without the downsides for your heart?

Plant-based meat alternatives have exploded in popularity in recent years. Originally primarily made from tofu and soy milk, plant-based meat products are now manufactured from a range of plants, cereals and fungi including peas, wheat, mushrooms and rice.

We’re consistently told that a majority plant-based diet is best for our hearts. So, logic would follow that plant-based meat substitutes should be beneficial, at least compared with actual red meat, right? Well, not if the results of new research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition are anything to go by.

Plant-based meat should be healthy, right?

In their study, the Singapore-based research team were analysing the effects of what they called ‘plant-based meat analogues’ (PMBAs) versus animal-based meats (ABMs) on the heart health of people already at a high risk of type 2 diabetes.

The central question was whether replacing traditional animal meat with PMBAs would improve heart health and reduce diabetes risk.

Over eight weeks, the study followed 89 participants, split into two groups. One group was asked to eat PMBAs in place of ABMs, while the other group stuck to regular meat.

The researchers measured levels of bad cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar and other health indicators.

After eight weeks, the results showed no significant differences in cholesterol profile for either group. But, somewhat paradoxically, both groups showed improvements in blood sugar levels.

Why is this happening?

The researchers say this suggests the health benefits usually associated with a plant-based diet may not apply to plant-based meat. They summarise this is most likely due to the different nutritional makeup of whole plant foods compared with PMBAs.

When analysing the nutrient content of both PMBAs and ABMs, the researchers found plant-based meat was higher in sodium, potassium and calcium while animal meat contained more protein.

Dietician Kelsey Costa told Medical News Today the results were not as surprising to health professionals as they may have been to everyone else. That’s because PMBAs, by definition, are highly processed food products, whereas animal meat is not.

“While this result may be unexpected to some, it’s not surprising that no benefits were observed when an unhealthy type of ultra-processed food was compared to animal-based foods,” she said.

“Plant-based meat analogues would fall into the ‘less-healthy’ plant-based diet index category, which would not likely improve cardiometabolic health and may instead increase risk.”

Meat the alternatives

Ms Costa concedes that not all PMBAs are created equal, and some are healthier than others, but none will match the benefits of a diet rich in whole plant foods.

“While there are potentially healthier plant-based meat alternatives on the market than the ones used in this study, consumers should keep in mind that these alternatives are often still heavily processed foods and should not be relied upon as the main source of protein in a healthy diet,” she said.

So, it seems guilt-free burgers and hot dogs might just be a myth after all.

Have you tried any plant-based meat substitutes? How did they taste? Let us know in the comments section below.

Also read: Astonishing rise in meat theft

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Brad Lockyer
Brad Lockyer
Brad has deep knowledge of retirement income, including Age Pension and other government entitlements, as well as health, money and lifestyle issues facing older Australians. Keen interests in current affairs, politics, sport and entertainment. Digital media professional with more than 10 years experience in the industry.
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