Beware of ultra-processed plant foods: New study links them to heart disease

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A new study has found that ultra-processed plant-based foods (UPFs) might increase the risk of heart disease.

Researchers from the University of São Paulo and Imperial College London analyzed data from over 118,000 people and discovered that these foods could be more harmful to heart health than less-processed plant foods.

Plant-based diets are generally known to lower the risk of heart disease.

However, many plant-based foods, like meat-free sausages, burgers, and nuggets, are considered ultra-processed.

Despite being marketed as healthy, these UPFs might not be as good for your health as you think.

The research team found that eating ultra-processed plant-based foods was linked to a 7% increase in the risk of heart disease compared to eating unprocessed plant foods.

They also noted that consuming any kind of UPF, whether plant-based or animal-based, was associated with a higher risk of heart disease and death from these diseases.

The study, published in The Lancet Regional Health—Europe, highlights the need to rethink how we view plant-based UPFs.

Dr. Eszter Vamos, a co-author from Imperial College London, said, “Fresh plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes have important health benefits. But ultra-processed foods, even if plant-based, are linked to poor health outcomes.”

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are often higher in salt, fat, sugar, and contain artificial additives. Previous studies have linked them to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

In this study, researchers looked at data from the UK Biobank, which includes information from people in England, Scotland, and Wales aged 40 to 69. These individuals had their diets assessed over at least two days, and their health outcomes were tracked using hospital and mortality records.

The researchers classified foods as either ultra-processed (UPFs) or not (non-UPFs). They further divided these groups into plant-based and animal-based categories. Plant-based foods included fruits, vegetables, grains, bread, cakes, sweets, and sweetened beverages. Animal-based foods included meats, dairy, and eggs.

The study found no association between eating all plant-based foods together and heart disease. However, eating more unprocessed plant-based foods was linked to better health outcomes. Replacing ultra-processed plant foods with unprocessed ones was associated with a 7% lower risk of heart disease and a 15% lower risk of death from these conditions. On the other hand, eating ultra-processed plant foods was linked to an increased risk of both heart disease and death.

Increasing the amount of unprocessed plant-based foods by 10% was also associated with a 13% reduction in death from all heart diseases and a 20% reduction in death from coronary heart disease.

Why are ultra-processed plant foods risky?

Dr. Fernanda Rauber, the study’s lead author, explained that despite being plant-based, these foods can still contribute to heart disease risk factors like high cholesterol and high blood pressure. The additives and industrial contaminants in ultra-processed foods can cause oxidative stress and inflammation, increasing the risk of heart disease.

What should we do?

The researchers suggest that nutritional guidelines should focus not just on reducing meat and animal products but also on the level of processing in plant-based foods. Dr. Renata Levy from the University of São Paulo said, “This study provides strong evidence to encourage the reduction of ultra-processed food consumption, regardless of whether it is plant-based or animal-based.”

In summary, while plant-based diets can be healthy, it’s essential to choose less-processed options to protect your heart health.

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