Eating Plant-Based Beware of Ultra-Processed Foods, Experts Warn

Warning: Ultraprocessed Plant-Based Foods Aren't All Healthy | Healthcare 360 Magazine

[Source – ASN]

Adopting a plant-based diet can reduce the risk of chronic diseases and contribute to a longer life, all while benefiting the environment. However, experts caution that not all plant-based foods are created equal. Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior teaching fellow at Aston Medical School in Birmingham, UK, emphasizes that while some plant-based foods can be healthy, others can be harmful.

Mellor points out that many ultraprocessed plant-based foods, although meat-free, are not necessarily healthy. He notes, “We can’t always assume plant-based means healthy, as after all, sugar is plant-based. Many foods that do not contain animal products, such as biscuits, crisps, confectionary, and soft drinks, are technically plant-based but would not be considered essential as part of a healthy diet by the majority of people.”

Recent research has shown that consuming ultraprocessed plant-based foods can significantly increase bad cholesterol and hypertension, leading to heart disease and early death. This study, which is considered the first to link ultraprocessed plant-based foods with a higher risk of cardiovascular diseases, underscores the potential dangers of such diets.

Understanding Ultraprocessed Plant-Based Foods

Ultraprocessed foods undergo extensive industrial processes, including heating, nutrient fracking, molding, and the addition of chemicals to alter their color, smell, taste, and texture. These foods are designed to be highly palatable and convenient, often requiring little to no preparation time. Examples of ultraprocessed plant-based foods include boxed macaroni and cheese, deep-dish frozen veggie pizza, fast-food French fries, and various desserts.

In contrast, unprocessed foods consist of fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, and milk. Minimally processed foods include culinary ingredients like salt, herbs, oils, and foods that combine these ingredients with unprocessed foods, such as canned goods and frozen vegetables. According to Fernanda Rauber, a researcher at Nupens/USP and the study’s first author, food additives and industrial contaminants in ultraprocessed foods can cause oxidative stress and inflammation, further increasing health risks.

“Therefore, our results support the shift towards plant-based food choices that consider the degree of processing to improve cardiovascular health outcomes,” Rauber explained in a statement.

The Benefits of Minimally Ultraprocessed Plant-Based Foods

The study, published in The Lancet Regional Health — Europe, analyzed data from the UK Biobank, involving over 118,000 participants aged 40 to 69 from England, Scotland, and Wales. Participants’ dietary information was linked to hospital and mortality records to assess cardiovascular risk factors. The findings revealed that consuming ultraprocessed plant-based foods increased the risk of cardiovascular disease by 5% and the risk of early death by 13%.

However, the study also found a silver lining. Replacing just 10% of ultraprocessed plant-based foods with fresh, frozen, or minimally processed plant foods lowered the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by 7% and reduced the risk of dying from heart disease by 13%.

The research also examined plant-based meat products like sausages, nuggets, and burgers, which are categorized as ultraprocessed. However, determining the exact risk posed by these foods was challenging, noted Peter Scarborough, a professor of population health at the University of Oxford, who was not involved in the study. He pointed out that plant-based meat alternatives constituted only 0.5% of the ultraprocessed plant-based foods analyzed in the research. Over half of the ultraprocessed plant-based foods studied were packaged breads, pastries, buns, cakes, and cookies.

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