Is plant-based meat better for your health and heart? What a new study says.

A burger on a seeded bun topped with tomato slices and other condiments.
How do processed plant-based foods stack up against meat? (Getty Creative)

It’s the longtime debate between vegetarians and meat eaters: Are plant-based alternatives to meat really better for you, even if they’re processed? New research says yes.

A review of studies comparing plant-based and animal-based meats, just published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, found that these highly processed plant-based meat alternatives (or PBMAs) have more heart-healthy nutritional profiles. These plant-based products include items made with protein sources such as vital wheat gluten (also known as seitan), soy protein, pea protein and mycoprotein, and with fat sources like coconut oil, olive oil and vegetable oil.

Though these PBMAs often have a high sodium content, researchers who looked at relevant studies from 1970 to 2023 found that they did not raise blood pressure as one might expect from salt-laden foods, and actually improved cholesterol levels in a number of randomized controlled trials. It’s worth noting, however, that there is limited research on how these food products may impact the risk of heart attack or stroke.

So — should you add more highly processed plant-based foods into your diet? Here’s what experts say.

Dr. Misagh Karimi, an oncologist at City of Hope Orange County in Irvine, Calif., tells Yahoo Life that “plant-based meats tend to be better for us than meat, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are healthy.” He points to the high sodium content in these foods, which could potentially push a person over the recommended intake limit of 2,300 mg per day for most adults. In addition to causing high blood pressure (which this study did not link these foods to), too much sodium in one’s diet can also increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Registered dietitian Michelle Routhenstein tells Yahoo Life that though plant-based meat alternatives may help cut down on red meat consumption, “we must look at the details of what exactly is in the product.” While some plant-based meat alternatives like tempeh, tofu or bean-based products may be low in saturated fat and minimally processed, as well as “abundant in cardio-protective properties like fiber, folate, isoflavones, vitamin K, potassium and magnesium,” others may be ultra-processed and high in saturated fat, she notes.

Karimi agrees that plant-based meats do have benefits and are typically good sources of protein — though it varies considerably based on the type of plant-based meats you are consuming. He notes that, typically, these products are lower in saturated fats than meat, and have the additional benefit of fiber, which is “good for your gut and your digestion.”

The biggest perk of eating vegetarian meats may be that doing so stops you from eating processed meats in general. The drawbacks of processed meats, which refers to any meat that is preserved by salting, curing or smoking, are well-documented: The World Health Organization even lists processed meats as a carcinogen based on their association with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. “As a medical oncologist, I recommend staying away from or significantly limiting consumption of processed meats,” Karimi says.

Research consistently shows that whole foods (such as vegetables, fruits, nuts and legumes) are great for your heart health, and they are major components of the cardiologist-praised Mediterranean diet (which also leans heavily on fish and seafood). While plant-based meat substitutes may be better than, say, pepperoni, items like beans, seeds and legumes are protein-rich sources that can support your overall health.