These plant-based foods may increase heart disease risk

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A new study by researchers at the University of São Paulo and Imperial College London has found that plant-based ultra-processed foods (UPFs) may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases more than less-processed plant-based foods.

This research used data from over 118,000 people and highlights the potential dangers of UPFs, even those marketed as healthy alternatives.

Plant-based diets are generally associated with lower risks of heart disease and stroke. However, many plant-based foods, such as some meat-free sausages, burgers, and nuggets, are classified as UPFs.

These foods often contain high levels of salt, fat, sugar, and artificial additives, which have been linked to various health issues, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

The study, published in The Lancet Regional Health—Europe, found that consuming plant-based UPFs was linked to a 7% higher risk of cardiovascular diseases compared to eating unprocessed plant-based foods.

The researchers also noted that all UPFs, whether plant-based or animal-based, were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases and related deaths.

Dr. Eszter Vamos from Imperial College London explained that while fresh plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes are beneficial for health and the environment, plant-based UPFs do not offer the same protective effects. Instead, these highly processed foods are linked to poor health outcomes.

The researchers used data from the UK Biobank, which included dietary assessments of participants aged 40 to 69 from England, Scotland, and Wales.

They examined more than 400 behaviors and biological factors, using machine learning to analyze the extensive dataset. The study looked at the participants’ consumption of UPFs and non-UPFs, categorized as either plant-based or animal-based.

Results showed that eating more unprocessed plant-based foods was associated with better health outcomes. Replacing plant-based UPFs with less-processed plant-based foods led to a 7% lower risk of cardiovascular diseases and a 15% lower risk of dying from these conditions.

Moreover, increasing the intake of unprocessed plant-based foods by 10% was linked to a 13% reduction in mortality from cardiovascular diseases and a 20% reduction in mortality from coronary heart disease.

Dr. Fernanda Rauber from the University of São Paulo, the study’s first author, noted that even though these foods are plant-based, their composition and processing can lead to health risks like dyslipidemia and hypertension.

Food additives and industrial contaminants can cause oxidative stress and inflammation, further increasing these risks. Therefore, the study supports choosing plant-based foods with minimal processing to improve heart health.

The researchers suggest that nutritional guidelines should not only encourage reducing meat and animal products but also focus on the degree of processing in plant-based foods. Avoiding UPFs is essential for better health outcomes.

Dr. Renata Levy, a professor at the University of São Paulo, emphasized the importance of this research in guiding public policies. She highlighted the need to reduce UPF consumption, regardless of whether they are plant-based or animal-based, to promote better cardiovascular health.

This study provides a strong argument for updating dietary guidelines to include the importance of food processing levels, aiming to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods and promote healthier, less-processed plant-based diets.

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The research findings can be found in The Lancet Regional Health – Europe.

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