Red and processed meat, especially if eaten in large quantities and for long periods of time, can be carcinogenic and dangerous to the heart, since they provide saturated fat and cholesterol. This is why, especially in recent years, plant-based alternatives to meat are spreading. Products that imitate hamburgers, cutlets and salamis, ready to be cooked and eaten. But in this case, is vegetarian always healthy? This wondered scientists at Stanford Medical School. The research results were published a few days ago in The America Journal of Clinical Nutrition (Crimarco et al, The America Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Aug 2020).
The researchers asked themselves this question starting from the consideration that even vegetarian alternative products to meat often contain potentially harmful substances for the heart, such as sodium or coconut oil, which provides saturated fat. To understand whether vegetarian alternatives to meat can be still considered healthy, the scientists recruited 36 people, who were divided into two groups. The first group was asked to eat two servings a day of vegetarian alternatives to meat and to avoid red meat for 8 weeks, while the second group was asked to eat two servings a day of red meat for the same period of time. After these 8 weeks, for other 8 weeks the two groups switched habits. Study participants were monitored for the amount in blood of TMAO, or trimethylamine N-oxide, a substance related to cardiovascular risk, and bad cholesterol. What emerged was that in those who consumed the vegetarian alternative, bad cholesterol had dropped by 10 milligrams per deciliter. Not only that, the vegetarian alternative to meat has also shown to improve TMAO values. Indeed, scientists have been able to observe a very particular fact. In the group that started eating red meat there was an increase in TMAO right from the start, which did not happen in those who started with a vegetarian diet. When the groups changed after 8 weeks, people who switched from the meat to a vegetarian diet experienced a drop in TMAO. Those who switched from a vegetarian diet to that with red meat did not show the increase in TMAO that could have been expected. This has been explained by the fact that TMAOs begin to form if specific bacteria are present in the gut, and these bacteria are numerous when the diet is rich in meat. Hence, the 8-week meatless diet reduced the presence of these bacteria and thus the TMAOs did not increase.
Therefore, vegetarian alternatives to meat still proved to be a healthier solution than red and processed meat. In any case, it is always good to read the label and choose products that possibly do not contain saturated fat and lots of sodium.