Plant Based and Mediterranean Diets Strengthen Microbiome and Create Protection Against Heart Disease: A Stanford Study

2018), consumption of which has been associated with increased risk of weight gain, obesity, and associated non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes (Srour et al. 2020). Additionally, they tend to be as high as red meat in sodium and saturated fat. NOVA is a system that classifies food products according to how they’ve been processed, whether that’s biologically, physically, or chemically.

Could plant-based meat alternatives decrease cardiovascular risk?

In 2020, the Sonnenburg Lab and Gardner Lab, both out of Stanford University collaborated on this exact question. They performed a randomized crossover trial, named ​​SWAP-MEAT (The Study With Appetizing Plantfood — Meat Eating Alternatives Trial). In the trial, 36 participants were randomized into one of two groups. The first group was directed to consume two or more servings of red meat a day for eight weeks total (referred to as the ‘Animal phase’), limiting the amount of other meats like fish or white meat. After eight weeks, this group was directed to switch to consuming the same serving size of plant-based meat (provided by Beyond Meat) for an additional eight weeks, and referred to as the ‘Plant phase’. The second group did the opposite, starting with the Plant phase, and switching to the Animal phase after eight weeks. All participants had to keep a strict log of their dietary habits, and fasting blood samples were collected from each participant every two weeks.

Plant-based meat alternatives do not increase TMAO levels

Participants were able to maintain their selected diets for the entirety of the sixteen weeks, consuming comparable amounts of animal derived meat to plant-based meats. As expected, sodium, saturated fats, and protein intake was about the same at both phases, while fiber intake decreased during the Animal phase compared to the Plant phase, given Beyond Beef products contain added dietary fiber. In addition, low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (commonly referred to as “bad” cholesterol) and weight of participants were significantly lower following the Plant phase when compared to the Animal phase. As might have been hypothesized, TMAO, our cardiovascular risk marker, was significantly lower in the Plant phase compared to the Animal phase. Of special note, however, the order in which participants completed the Plant or Animal phase mattered to their TMAO levels. The first group, assigned to the Animal phase first, showed a decrease in mean TMAO following the switch to Plant phase. The second group would be expected to show the opposite effect: an increase in mean TMAO following transition from the Plant phase to the Animal phase. However, what the researchers observed was no change in mean TMAO. They interpreted these results as a potential microbiome effect — the Plant phase adapted microbiome may provide a protective effect against TMA production (and thus TMAO production).

What does this mean for meat alternatives?

While this study was small, the significant difference in TMAO is promising when it comes to making dietary recommendations to decrease cardiovascular risk markers. Not only would a shift away from red meat consumption to plant-based meat provide benefits to individual health, but plant-based options offer an environmentally sustainable option. On the other hand, while LDL cholesterol and weight also decreased in participants during the plant-based meat alternative phase, the health impact of ultra-processed foods should not be dismissed, as this study only monitored for cardiovascular risk. There are two potential solutions to striking a balance between decreased cardiovascular risk and limiting ultra-processed food consumption. First, one way of interpreting this study is that not eating meat allows for the gut microbiome to protect against TMAO production, and occasional meat consumption might be just as cardiovascularly healthy as no meat consumption. From a sustainability standpoint, while decreasing meat consumption is key, removing meat as a dietary option would be best. Another solution may be driven by cellular agriculture. Could lab grown meat be made without TMAO precursors? The future could hold meat created without ultra-processed ingredients, while satisfying the perfect balance of cardiovascular health and environmental sustainability.


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Written for Helikon by Elisa Caffrey, Guest Author and Stanford PhD Candidate



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Helikon Consulting

Helikon Consulting

Scientific consulting in alternative proteins — plant-based proteins, cellular agriculture, and cell-based meat