Ultra-processed plant-based food has been linked to heart disease and early death — but a simple swap could boost your health

  • Plant-based diets have been linked to lower blood pressure and slower aging.

  • But the plant-based ultra-processed food category is growing.

  • Plant-based UPFs increased the risk of heart disease, while whole foods lowered it, in a new study.

Eating a plant-based diet is associated with a lower risk of heart problems and a longer life.

But plant-based foods that are ultra-processed, like vegan nuggets or potato chips, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and early death, according to a new study.

There is a simple swap, however, that could boost your health.

People who switch out plant-based processed foods with whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables, have been found to have lower blood pressure and a reduced risk of diabetes. They may also age slower.

In recent years, highly-processed plant-based meat alternatives have become popular. In 2023, the plant-based market was worth $8.1 billion, according to the Good Food Institute.

Ultra-processed foods (UFPs) make up around 73% of the US food supply, according to a 2024 research paper by Northeastern University's Network Science Institute, which hasn't been peer-reviewed. Eating a diet high in UPFs has been linked to health conditions, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.

To understand the impact that eating plant-based products and UPFs had on cardiovascular risk, researchers analyzed data from a UK Biobank longitudinal study.

They looked at data from more than 118,000 people between the ages of 40 and 69 who answered questions about their diet. This information was later linked to hospital and mortality records to monitor cardiovascular risk factors.

The study, published Monday in The Lancet Regional Health Europe, found that plant-based UPF consumption was associated with a 5% increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a 12% higher risk of early death.

However, replacing plant-based UPFs with non-UPF plant-based foods was associated with a 7% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and 15% lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, the study said.

In light of their findings, the authors recommended that dietary guidelines should emphasize not only limiting meat and animal products, but also the need to avoid UPFs in general.

"A higher intake of plant-sourced foods may only bring about better cardiovascular health outcomes when largely based on minimally processed foods while a higher intake of plant-sourced UPF may have detrimental effects on health," the study said.

Baked goods, snacks, and soda made up the majority of plant-based UPFs

Although meat alternatives were included, processed baked goods were the main foods considered plant-based UPFs, Duane Mellor, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association and Honorary Academic Fellow at Aston University, said.

These included packaged bread, pastries, cake, cookies, potato chips, and sugar-sweetened beverages,

Fake meat made up 0.5% of all ultra-processed foods consumed by participants in the study.

"It is important to emphasize that just because a food or drink is technically plant-based, it does not mean it is healthy," he said.

Tom Sanders, Professor emeritus of Nutrition and Dietetics, King's College London, said: "As a nutritionist, I find the term "plant-based ultra-processed food" confusing and not helpful in formulating dietary advice to the public." Cake, soda, and cookies are unhealthy whether they're made industrially or at home, he added.

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