In a new study, researchers found swapping out red meat for certain plant-based meat alternatives can improve some heart risk factors.
The research was conducted by a team at Stanford Medicine.
It may seem obvious that a patty made of plants is a healthier option than a hamburger.
But many of the new meat alternatives, such as Beyond Meat, have relatively high levels of saturated fat and added sodium and are considered highly processed foods, meaning they are made with food isolates and extracts as opposed to whole beans or chopped mushrooms.
All of these factors have been shown to contribute to heart disease risk.
In the study, the team gathered a group of more than 30 people and assigned them to two different diets, each one for eight weeks.
One diet called for at least two daily servings of meat—the options available were primarily red meat—and one called for at least two daily servings of plant-based meat.
In particular, the researchers measured the levels of a molecule, trimethylamine N-oxide, or TMAO, in the body; TMAO has been linked to heart disease risk.
They found that TMAO levels were lower when study participants were eating plant-based meat.
The team calls TMAO “an emerging risk factor,” meaning there seems to be a connection between higher levels of TMAO and an increased risk of heart disease, but the connection has yet to be definitively proved.
Two precursors to TMAO, carnitine, and choline, are found in red meat, so it’s possible that individuals who regularly eat beef, pork or lamb for dinner will simply have higher levels of TMAO.
In the past few years, studies have shown that high levels of TMAO are consistent with increased inflammation and blood clotting, among other health concerns.
Another study found that people with elevated TMAO had a 60% higher risk for adverse cardiovascular events, such as a heart attack.
Outside of TMAO, health benefits conveyed from plant-based meat alternatives extended to weight and levels of LDL cholesterol—or “bad” cholesterol.
No matter which diet was first, participants’ levels of LDL cholesterol dropped on average 10 milligrams per deciliter, which is not only statistically significant but clinically significant too.
In addition, participants lost 2 pounds, on average, during the plant-based portion of the diet.
The team hopes to continue studying the relationship between health and plant-based meat alternatives, particularly as it pertains to changes in the microbiome.
One author of the study is Christopher Gardner, Ph.D., a professor of medicine.
The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
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