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New research suggests that most plant-based meat alternatives are healthier for your heart than the real thing. Anastasiya Mihailovna/Getty Images
  • A new study indicates that plant-based meats can be good for your heart.
  • They were found to be linked with reduced cardiovascular risk factors.
  • However, another says ultra-processed plant-based foods appear to increase risk.
  • The discrepancy may lie in whether foods are high in sodium, saturated fat, and sugar.
  • It’s important to read labels on processed plant-based foods to avoid these.

While one recent study indicates that plant-based ultra-processed foods might increase the risk of heart disease and early death, a systematic review and meta-analysis, including 12 controlled trials, published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology suggests that plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) might be an exception, actually helping to improve cardiovascular health.

According to the study, while the nutritional profiles of various PBMAs vary widely, overall, they have characteristics that make them heart-healthy.

The researchers also found studies showing that PBMAs could improve certain cardiovascular risk factors, including total cholesterol, LDL, apolipoprotein B-100 (a form of LDL implicated in inherited forms of high cholesterol), and body weight.

They did note, however, that more studies are needed to conclude what the effects on heart health will be long-term.

Commenting on the study, John Higgins, MD, sports cardiologist at UTHealth Houston, explained that plant-based meat has less saturated fat and more fiber per serving than regular meat.

Saturated fat is significant because it raises low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL), which is often thought of as being the “bad” cholesterol. High levels of LDL can lead to clogged arteries. Polyunsaturated fat, however, has the opposite effect.

Fiber, especially the soluble variety, binds with cholesterol, helping to shuttle it out of the body.

However, he noted that there are other potential factors at work as well. PBMAs can lead to a lowering of trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO), which is a molecule that may be a risk factor for heart disease.

“Also, cardiovascular harm from traditional meat and egg yolks is not only due to high cholesterol in both and additionally high saturated fats in red meat,” said Higgins, “but also both elevate plasma levels of toxic metabolites of the intestinal microbiome including trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO).”

Michael O. McKinney, MD, a physician, and nutritionist with Health Outlook, told Healthline that the apparent contradiction between this study and another recent study, which found that plant-based ultra-processed foods (a category that can include plant-based meat) reside in “the ingredients as well as the general nutritional profile” of these foods.

“[E]ven though many ultra-processed foods have unhealthy additives like high levels of sodium, sugar and unhealthy fats, plant-based meats developed for health do not contain these components,” he explained.

However, McKinney added that plant-based meats can be divided into two categories: those with whole ingredients and those heavily processed with artificial additives. So, some plant-based meats may be healthier than others.

McKinney advises paying close attention to the ingredient list to choose the plant-based meat that is healthiest for your heart.

“Opt for products with whole food ingredients instead of added sugars,” he said.

He also recommends looking for products that have less sodium in order to keep your blood pressure in check.

McKinney further noted that some plant-based meats can actually be high in saturated fat if they are made with coconut or palm oil.

Additionally, he suggests looking at the fiber content since it is also good for heart health.

Finally, McKinney recommends avoiding added sugars. “These are unnecessary and unhealthy, as some processed foods may contain sugars to enhance taste,” he said.

Higgins additionally explained that a diet with regular meat can also be good for your heart if you opt for leaner choices.

“In fact, the Mediterranean diet is also considered heart healthy and includes occasional red meat as well as more frequent lean chicken and fish,” he said.

You can also substitute plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts in place of meat. These foods can help lower your cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart disease, said Higgins.

A new study has found that plant-based meats can be healthier for your heart than regular meat.

However, another recent study found that ultra-processed plant-based foods — including plant-based meats — can actually increase heart disease risk.

Experts say the seeming contradiction may be explained by the fact that many ultra-processed foods contain high amounts of sodium, sugar, and unhealthy fats.

Plant-based meats designed with health in mind do not contain these ingredients.

When selecting plant-based meats, check the label for their sodium, saturated fat, sugar, and fiber content.

Alternatively, a diet rich in whole plant-based foods with occasional lean meat can also be good for your heart.