Research Reveals Association Between Heart Disease and Plant-Based Ultra-Processed Foods

Looking to safeguard your health against chronic diseases while also contributing positively to the environment? According to experts, adopting a plant-based diet is the way to go.

But does this mean you can load up your plate with packaged macaroni and cheese, frozen veggie pizza, or fast-food fries, and then indulge in a few doughnuts for dessert?

Not quite, says Duane Mellor, a registered dietitian and senior teaching fellow at Aston Medical School in Birmingham, UK. While these choices may be devoid of meat, they come with their own set of risks. “We can’t assume that ‘plant-based’ equals healthy, as even sugar originates from plants,” Mellor points out. Many foods lacking animal products—like cookies, chips, candies, and sodas—technically fall under the plant-based category but aren’t considered essential for a wholesome diet by most people.

In fact, indulging in such processed plant-based junk food significantly elevates bad cholesterol and blood pressure, leading to cardiovascular issues and premature death, as highlighted in a recent study.

“Eating plant-based products can either be beneficial, offering protection against health issues, or pose a risk—it all depends on the processing level of these foods,” explains Renata Levy, a researcher at the Epidemiological Research Center in Nutrition and Health at the University of São Paulo, Brazil.

Ultraprocessed foods undergo numerous industrial treatments and often contain added chemicals to enhance taste, appearance, and texture, making them highly palatable and convenient but detrimental to health.

Conversely, unprocessed foods like fresh fruits and vegetables, along with minimally processed options such as canned goods and frozen vegetables, offer greater health benefits.

Fernanda Rauber, a researcher at the University of São Paulo, emphasizes that additives and contaminants in ultraprocessed foods can lead to oxidative stress and inflammation, exacerbating health risks.

The study, published in The Lancet Regional Health — Europe, analyzed data from the UK Biobank and revealed that plant-based ultraprocessed foods increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death.

Replacing these ultraprocessed options with fresh, frozen, or minimally processed plant foods significantly reduces cardiovascular risk and mortality rates.

While the study did consider plant-based meat products like sausages and burgers, their specific risk levels were challenging to determine due to their minimal representation in the study’s dataset.

Despite these findings, experts stress that well-balanced plant-based diets like the Mediterranean or DASH diets promote cardiovascular health by avoiding unhealthy foods, whether industrially processed or homemade.

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