According to 2020 statistics, Canadians have steadily reduced their intake of beef and pork in recent years. Some avoid eating meat for ethical reasons, while others are worried about negative health effects.1 Meat is a great source of protein, which is an important building block for the body.2 However, meat can also have high amounts of fat and cholesterol which can cause heart issues.3 Plant-based meat alternatives are one way to reduce meat intake, indeed, Stanford University researchers report that substituting plant-based meat alternatives can have heart health benefits.4
Changes to Meat in Canada’s Food Guide
Canada’s Food Guide recently made significant changes to its recommendations, moving to a new “Plate Approach”. Now, “protein foods” should fill a quarter of the plate and include beans, legumes, nuts, cheese, and lean meats.5 But why has the guide shifted from meat?
Protein and Fats Found in Meat
Meat provides the body with protein and fats when eaten. These nutrients are important building blocks and fuel for the body.6 All meat provides plenty of protein, but the fat content can differ greatly.
Three types of fats are found in meat. Trans fat and saturated fat are generally considered to be “unhealthy” fats, while unsaturated fats are said to be “healthier”.8 Most meats contain similar amounts of healthy and unhealthy fats. Plant-based protein foods, such as beans and nuts, often provide more healthy fat and less unhealthy fat.7
What are the Health Concerns with Eating Meat?
High amounts of unhealthy fats and cholesterol in meat can lead to heart disease and digestive cancer.9 Cholesterol is naturally made by the liver and important for many functions in the body. Alongside the cholesterol already in meat, unhealthy fats from meat cause the liver to make more cholesterol than normal. This can cause unhealthy levels of cholesterol to build up in the body, restricting blood flow to the heart and brain. When a blockage occurs, it can cause a heart attack or stroke.10
Processed meats such as sausages or deli cuts are often high in saturated fat and salt. Eating too much salt can raise blood pressure-another risk factor for heart disease.11 These processed meats also often contain nitrates or other preservatives, which can form cancerous compounds in the body.12
Are Plant-Based Meat Alternatives a Healthier Option?
Writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, scientists from Stanford University report how eating beef compares to eating plant-based “meat” alternatives. They gathered participants and divided them into two groups. The first group ate beef, and the second group ate plant-based Beyond Meat. The groups followed these diets for eight weeks, then switched to the other diet for another eight weeks. The scientists measured how much trimethylamine N-oxide, cholesterol, glucose, and insulin were in the participant’s blood. Trimethylamine N-oxide can lead to plaque buildup that prevents blood from flowing properly causing heart disease. Cholesterol, glucose and insulin measurements are also used to assess heart disease risk.
The results showed that the Beyond Meat diet had lower Trimethylamine N-oxide and bad cholesterol levels than the beef diet. There was no difference in glucose or insulin levels for either diet. One interesting finding was that the group that started with the Beyond Meat diet maintained the same Trimethylamine N-oxide levels when they switched to the beef diet. In contrast, the group starting with the Beyond Meat diet had lower Trimethylamine N-oxide levels when they switched to the Beyond Meat diet. This suggests the Beyond Meat diet may have long-lasting effects in reducing heart disease risk
Caution is Always Warranted
While these results are promising, additional research will need to explore these findings further. The participants were mostly caucasian women, further study of more diverse participants is neccessary. Both groups of participants were allowed to eat small amounts of chicken and fish, meaning the Beyond Meat diet still contained lean meat. The authors suggest that changes in cholesterol levels may be connected to increased fibre intake from the Beyond Meat. It’s important to consider that plant-based meat is often just as high in sodium and saturated fat as the meat it imitates. Overall, more research is needed to confirm whether plant-based meat is healthier.4
The Bottom Line: Are Meatless Diets Healthier?
Research shows that eating meat can lead to health issues, but does this mean it shouldn’t be eaten at all? The best answer may be “all good things in moderation”. General recommendations are to limit red meat and processed meats as much as possible. Leaner options such as fish or poultry can be healthier options to include with meals. Canada’s Food Guide recommends choosing protein alternatives with healthier fat profiles such as tofu, beans and nuts.6 Plant-based meats can be a good option to replace real meat but may not necessarily be healthier.4 Research on dietary health can change rapidly, and recommendations may shift as more data is collected.
1.Wunsch, N. (2023, August 31). Veganism and Vegetarianism in Canada—statistics and facts. Statista.
2. Health Canada. (2019, January 22). Protein. Government of Canada.
3. Health Canada. (2019, January 22). Cholesterol. Government of Canada.
4. Crimarco et al. (2020, November 20). A randomized crossover trial on the effect of plant-based compared with animal-based meat on trimethylamine-N-oxide and cardiovascular disease risk factors in generally healthy adults: Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial (SWAP-MEAT). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 112 (5), 1188–1199. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqaa203
6. Health Canada. (2023, August 29). Canada’s Food Guide. Government of Canada.
7. Health Canada. (2022, May 5). Applying Canada’s Dietary Guidelines. Government of Canada.
8. Health Canada. (2010, September 3). Nutrient Value of Some Common Foods. Government of Canada.
9. Health Canada. (2022, June 30). Fats: Fats and Your Health. Government of Canada.
10. Ruan et al. (2019, May). Estimates of the current and future burden of cancer attributable to red and processed meat consumption in Canada. Preventive Medicine, 122, 31–39. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.03.011
11. Health Canada. (2022, December 14). Heart and Stroke. Government of Canada.
12. Health Canada. (2020, August 18) Limit Highly Processed Foods. Government of Canada.
13. Government of Canada Publications. (1992, June). Nitrate/Nitrite. Government of Canada.