Plant-Based Foods are Not All Equal – Choose Wisely

As people strive to improve their health and longevity, many are turning away from consuming animal products and adopting a more plant-centric lifestyle. In previous blog posts, we have discussed why it’s important to choose organic products and how to decode food labels to understand some misleading terms used by the food industry. We have also discussed how ultraprocessed foods often contain a variety of neurotoxins, and that we recommend eating an assortment of whole, unprocessed foods in a variety of different ways.

The term “plant-based” has recently become a popular marketing term, but not all plant-based foods are created equal. As an example, biodynamically-grown corn is considered a whole food. High fructose corn syrup is plant-based, in that it was derived from corn, yet it is banned in several countries due to multiple health risks. Corn has been processed (or ultraprocessed) into something that is not inherently found in nature, that our bodies are not adapted to digest, metabolize, assimilate, and eliminate without immune burden. There are many similar ingredients within the category of plant-based foods. So while people may be adopting a more plant-centric lifestyle, they may not be aware that their choices may still be causing harm.

As of 2023, approximately 5% of Americans have adopted a vegetarian lifestyle, and another 3% consider themselves to be vegans. Many have chosen these lifestyles due to concerns about the environment, animal welfare, and/or their health. Still others, vegetarian and non-vegetarians alike, are choosing gluten-free and/or dairy-free diets for better health.

As more people shift their attention and purchasing power away from previously popular products, food companies are creating new items to meet the growing demand. Supermarket shelves are filled with enticing packaging for these “plant-based” products, and consumers are filling their carts with sausages, nuggets, and burgers engineered from plant-sourced ingredients.

These meat substitute products that many enjoy without a second thought fall under the classification of “ultraprocessed” foods. An ultraprocessed food is “made mostly from substances extracted from foods, such as fats, starches, added sugars, and hydrogenated fats. They may also contain additives like artificial colors and flavors or stabilizers. Examples of these foods are frozen meals, soft drinks, hot dogs and cold cuts, fast food, packaged cookies, cakes, and salty snacks.” While the ingredients themselves may have originally been sourced from a plant, they have been deconstructed, altered, and recombined with additives to create something that may mimic an actual food. While convenient, these foods often contain high levels of added sugars, unhealthy fats, and sodium, while being low in essential nutrients like fiber and vitamins​. An article published in Public Health Nutrition, provides more information on ultraprocessed foods and how to identify them.

This past Monday, a landmark study was published in the Lancet, that looked at the implications of consuming a diet rich in plant-based ultraprocessed foods with respect to cardiovascular risk and mortality. The study examined the dietary intake of over 500,000 people, and categorized the foods first as either plant-sourced or animal-sourced, then additionally as either 1) unprocessed/minimally processed (fruits, vegetables, grains, milk, meats, etc.,), 2) “culinary ingredients” such as butter, oils, table sugar, and salt, 3) “processed,” such as pickles, cheeses, canned fish, and simple breads, and 4) “ultraprocessed” as soft drinks, packaged snacks (chips, cookies, etc), packaged breads, confections, frozen meals, “reconstituted” meat products, and shelf-stable meals, etc.

Findings were interesting, but not surprising. Plant-sourced ultraprocessed food consumption was associated with a 5% increase in cardiovascular risk and a 12% increase in mortality. All ultraprocessed foods – both plant-based and not – contributed to higher cardiovascular and mortality risk. Conversely, every 10% increase in whole plant-based foods added to the diet was associated with a 7% decrease in cardiovascular risk and a 13% decrease in cardiovascular mortality risk!

Bottom line… ultraprocessed foods of any type are bad for the body, even if their label contains enticing buzzwords such as “plant-based,” “vegan,” or “gluten-free.” This study showed that it doesn’t matter if ultraprocessed foods are derived from plant or animal sources; the effects on cardiovascular risk and mortality are still substantial.

For more than 40 years. Dr. Jaffe has been recommending a diet based on a wide variety of whole foods that are organically or biodynamically sourced. We have written about our “Twelve Nature’s pHarmacy® Principles to Eat By” (Part1 and Part 2), to provide guidance.

“Plant-based” is a great buzzword if you interpret it to mean a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes and other delicacies fresh from the garden or Farmer’s Market. It’s not a great buzzword if interpreted to mean burgers, hot-dogs, or nuggets engineered to taste like red meat or chicken, served on a grain-free bun with a long list of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, and accompanied by a side of packaged baked chips made from dried potatoes, corn starch, oils, sugars, and additives.

For inspiration on eating to live long and well, you can find many delicious and easy-to-prepare recipes in our weekly blog.

We want you to thrive. Follow our guidance and avoid all ultraprocessed foods – even if they are plant-based.

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