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Are meatless diets the future?

September 17, 2019 | UCI Health
woman cooking meatless meal

When KFC tested its “plant-based chicken” in a single location in Atlanta recently, it sold as many of those “wings” and “nuggets” in five hours as it normally would sell of its popcorn chicken in a week.

Burger King has introduced its meatless Impossible Whopper. Dunkin’s Donuts offers a vegan sausage breakfast sandwich in Manhattan. Carl’s Jr. now serves a plant-based version of its Famous Star Burger.

Does this suggest that America is moving toward a healthier vegetarian future?

'The food can be just as tasty'

That remains to be seen, says UCI Health cardiologist Shaista Malik, MD, PhD, MPH.

“If you think about the ethical issues and sustainability issues for our planet, going plant-based makes a lot of sense,” says Malik, who also is UCI’s associate vice chancellor for Health Sciences.

“These new products can help people switch to a plant-based diet and see that the food can be just as tasty.”

But the assumption that any vegetarian diet — including these new products — is always healthy is problematic, she says.

Healthy meatless diets vs. unhealthy ones

It’s obvious that gorging on French fries rather than chowing down on leafy greens isn’t an optimal way to get your veggies.

Nor is loading up on white rice or bread instead of whole fruits or legumes a healthier choice than eating meat.

Let’s take a look at the new meatless fast-food options. They’re often served on white bread with a variety of sauces and processed cheeses.

Some of them contain as much sodium and saturated fat as meat products — and the calorie counts aren’t significantly lower.

Not exactly bloodless

One of the meatless burgers adds heme — a naturally occurring protein in blood — to make the “burger” look pink inside and “bleed” like a cooked hamburger.

High levels of heme are associated with increased risk of developing diabetes.

“Your arteries can’t tell the difference between plant-based and animal-based sodium, and up to six hours after eating a high-fat meal, your arteries are less responsive if an increase in blood flow is needed,” Malik points out.

“We need more research to understand the pros and cons of these new products.”

Plant-based diet improves health

While only 3% of Americans follow a vegetarian diet, increasing numbers of them are selecting plant-based options as part of their diets, both to help reduce their impact on their planet and to improve their health.

“There is a lot of evidence that a plant-based diet has major health benefits for all chronic disease, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer prevention,” Malik says. “Part of why it’s healthy is that the good bacteria that live in our gut thrive on soluble fiber, which plants provide in addition to high levels of nutrients.”

“In general, I tell patients to incorporate a whole-food diet that’s as much plant-based as they can tolerate, incorporating healthy fats like olive oil and nuts,” she says. “In some populations across the world, vegetarianism is very popular, and some of the healthiest people on the planet have a plant-based diet.

“It’s wonderful to see the demand for these new meatless products in this country, especially because it stems from a desire to get healthier,” Malik adds. “We should keep pushing food companies to make their products as healthy as possible.”

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