Does a plant-based diet equal "healthy"?
Updated: Feb 18, 2021
Written by Natalie Briggs (RD)
It is 2021, the words vegan or plant-based are everywhere you look.
According to the Vegan Society (2019) the number of people following a vegan diet since 2014 has quadrupled. Sainsburys (2019) predict that by 2025 vegetarians and vegans will make up 25% of the population. Not to mention sales of meat-free foods in the United Kingdom have increased by 40% from 2014 to 2019 (Mintel 2020).
As you can see from these statistics alone the plant-based movement is constantly growing in size and popularity.
Before I delve any deeper, I would firstly like to clear up the definition of a plant-based diet (PBD), as many people believe this means a strict vegan.
A PBD can be categorised by actual content, therefore the concept of a PBD can vary in definition. The diets can range from complete exclusion of all animal products (Freeman et al., 2017), to consuming increased amounts of fruits, vegetables, cereal and beans, whilst including moderate amounts of poultry, fish and yoghurt (Shikany et al., 2015).
You may wonder why anyone would choose to adopt this way of eating?
Zur and Klockner (2014) identified three motivators towards reducing meat consumption and moving towards a PBD. These included moral considerations (animal rights), environmental impacts and health effects.
If we focus on the health effects the evidence shows clear links between meat intake (specifically processed meat) and multiple health issues, including Heart Disease, Type 2 Diabetes and some Cancers (Chen et al., 2013). On the other hand, the World Cancer Research Fund (2019) suggests consuming a diet rich in plant-based foods can help protect the body against cancer, this including fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains.
As you may have gathered, a non PBD consumer can do all of the above and so in hindsight decrease their risk of adverse health outcomes without actually identifying as a PBD consumer.
However, the obvious area the above studies did not consider is the ever so popular plant-based meat alternatives. This involves purifying plant proteins into processed products that attempt to mimic the appearance and texture of animal meat.
We know they have grown exponentially in popularity and these days supermarkets have aisles dedicated to this type of food. As Mintel highlighted in their study the sales have increased in the past 5 years- many PBD consumers will be buying the products, from flexitarians to vegans or anyone who is just curious!
But are they good for you? Are they healthier than animal products? It seems anything labelled ‘plant-based’ is automatically deemed as healthy, but is this way of thinking distorted?
A study by Tso et al. (2021) exploring nutritional benefits of plant-based meat alternatives found factors to enhance sensory appeal may impact the overall nutritional benefits of that product. This including the addition of oil or added salt to the meat-alternative product.
One example included a beef burger compared with a meat-free burger. They were found to be similar in calories but the meat-free product did have lower fat and increased amounts of fibre. However, the meat-free burger was lower in protein not to mention higher in salt. As you can see there are benefits to a product containing more fibre and lower fat levels; Increased fibre can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease, blood cholesterol and blood pressure (BDA, 2016). Yet, when the same product contains increased amount of salt that will soon start to weaken the overall health benefits as we know higher salt consumption can raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of coronary heart disease (British Heart Foundation).
One specific plant-based protein source that is consumed in place of meat is mycoprotein. Certain well-known brands use this as their main ingredient in their products. It has been well researched in recent years with studies concluding the bioavailability of all amino acids in mycoprotein is similar to that of milk proteins and better than plant-based protein sources such as pulses. Bioavailability is basically the amount of protein actually used by the body- so the more the better..
It has also been shown to provide an optimal response in muscle protein synthesis (Dunlop et al., 2017). However, that area of nutrition is for another blog post altogether!
Another important factor to consider is the cooking method and condiments used when preparing and consuming the foods. Do you use full fat butter or an oil rich in unsaturated fats when cooking? Do you pair your burger with a large helping of tomato sauce or with a colourful salad? All of these factors will impact the overall nutritional content of that meal.
Taking all of the above into consideration you may see the supposed benefits of plant-based meat alternatives may not always trump the adverse health effects.
In conclusion, it seems the thought of a product being plant-based and therefore ‘healthy’ is based on traditional evidence of the comparison between red meat and traditional vegetarian diets (Ensaff et al., 2015). This including a diet rich in fruit, vegetables and pulses which is some-what different to the plant-based meat-alternatives discussed in this blog. This highlighting there is likely limited strong evidence on the health impact of consuming plant-based alternative proteins in place of animal meat (at least in the long-term).
As you can see this area of research is gaining momentum which is very important. As a registered dietitian it is both my passion but also my job to ensure you have access to the most up to date information. So, watch this space!
My top tips regarding a plant-based diet using the current evidence-base would be:
· Ensure you are getting a variety of plant foods in your diet! 30 in one week is the goal- including fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds, pulses, wholegrains, herbs+spices.
· If using any meal-alternative products try to balance it with the above plant foods and a good old portion of carbohydrates to make it a balanced dish!
· Eat something because you want to and you enjoy it and NOT because you feel you have to because of the ‘trend’.
· Remember tins of chickpeas, beans, kidney beans, lentils and other legumes/pulses are a great source of protein AND fibre (you do not always need to have the meat-alternative products).
· You do not need to label your diet. Just make sure it’s balanced and fuels your body and you are winning.
If you found this blog useful and interesting please share and spread the nutrition message!
British Dietetic Association (2016) Food fact sheets- Fibre. Available at: https://www.bda.uk.com/resource/fibre.html (Accessed 10th January 2021).
British Heart Foundation. Healthy Living, Healthy Eating- Salt. Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/support/healthy-living/healthy-eating/salt (Accessed 10th January 2021).
Chen, G.C., Lv, D.B., Pang, Z. and Liu, Q.F. (2013) Red and processed meat consumption and risk of stroke: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. European journal of clinical nutrition, 67(1), p.91.
Dunlop, M.V., Kilroe, S.P., Bowtell, J.L., Finnigan, T.J., Salmon, D.L. and Wall, B.T., 2017. Mycoprotein represents a bioavailable and insulinotropic non-animal-derived dietary protein source: a dose–response study. British Journal of Nutrition, 118(9), pp.673-685.
Ensaff, H., Coan, S., Sahota, P., Braybrook, D., Akter, H. and McLeod, H., 2015. Adolescents’ food choice and the place of plant-based foods. Nutrients, 7(6), pp.4619-4637.
Freeman, A.M., Morris, P.B., Barnard, N., Esselstyn, C.B., Ros, E., Agatston, A., Devries, S., O’Keefe, J., Miller, M., Ornish, D. and Williams, K. (2017) Trending cardiovascular nutrition controversies. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 69(9), pp.1172-1187.
Mintel. Plant-Based Push: UK Sales of Meat-Free Foods Shoot Up 40% between 2014–2019. Available at: https://www.mintel.com/press-centre/food-and-drink/plant-based-push-uk-sales-of-meat-free-foods-shoot-up-40-between-2014-19#:~:text=According%20to%20Mintel%20research%2C%20the,%25%20among%20all%20under%2D45s (Accessed 10th January 2021).
Shikany, J.M., Safford, M.M., Newby, P.K., Durant, R.W., Brown, T.M. and Judd, S.E. (2015) Southern dietary pattern is associated with hazard of acute coronary heart disease in the Reasons for Geographic and Racial Differences in Stroke (REGARDS) Study. Circulation, 132(9), pp.804-814.
Tso, R., Lim, A.J. and Forde, C.G. (2021) A Critical Appraisal of the Evidence Supporting Consumer Motivations for Alternative Proteins. Foods, 10(1), p.24.
World Cancer Research Fund (2019) Cancer prevention recommendations. Available at:https://www.wcrf-uk.org/uk/preventing-cancer/cancer-prevention-recommendations/enjoy-more-grains-veg-fruit-and-beans (Accessed 10th January 2021).
Zur, I. and A. Klöckner, C. (2014) Individual motivations for limiting meat consumption. British Food Journal, 116(4), pp.629-642.