The benefits of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health

The benefits of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health

OVERVIEW

  • In addition to being an excellent source of monounsaturated fat, olive oil is the only vegetable oil that contains a significant amount of phenolic compounds with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
  • These molecules are found in much larger quantities in extra virgin quality oils compared to refined olive oils.
  • Several studies indicate that the presence of these phenolic compounds contributes to the many positive effects of extra virgin olive oil on cardiovascular health.

The traditional Mediterranean diet has several positive effects on cardiovascular health by improving the lipid profile (cholesterol, triglycerides) and by reducing chronic inflammation, blood pressure, blood sugar and the risk of diabetes. Several studies have clearly established that these effects result in a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The Mediterranean diet is characterized by the abundant consumption of plant-based foods (fruits, vegetables, whole-grain cereals, legumes, nuts, herbs), a moderate intake of fermented dairy products (yogurt, cheese), fish, seafood and red wine as well as a low consumption of red meat and added sugars. It is therefore an exemplary diet, in which complex plant sugars are the main sources of carbohydrates and where the proteins come mainly from fish and legumes instead of red meat.

Another important feature of the Mediterranean diet is the daily use of large amounts (60–80 mL) of olive oil as the main source of fat for cooking. Several studies have reported that countries that are heavy consumers of olive oil have a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than those that consume mainly animal fats, suggesting a positive role of olive oil in this protective effect. Traditionally, these beneficial properties of olive oil have been attributed to its very high content (around 80%) of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that contributes to its antioxidant properties. However, and unlike most vegetable oils, olive oil also contains a host of minor compounds (1–3% of the oil) that also play very important roles in its positive effects on cardiovascular health (see below). This is particularly the case for several phenolic compounds found exclusively in olive oil, including phenolic alcohols such as hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol and polyphenols of the secoiridoid family such as oleuropein, ligstroside, oleacein and oleocanthal (Figure 1).

 

Figure 1. Molecular structures of the main phenolic compounds of olive oil.


One fruit, several types of oils
Most vegetable oils come from seeds that have been extracted with an organic solvent (e.g. hexane) and subsequently heated to a high temperature to evaporate this solvent and remove impurities that give them an undesirable smell and flavour. These drastic procedures are not necessary for olive oil as the olives are simply pressed and the oil in the pulp is extracted by mechanical pressure, without using chemical processes or excessive heat.

Olive oils are classified according to the quality of the oil that is obtained by the pressing procedure (Figure 2). Good quality oils, i.e. those with low acidity (<2% free oleic acid) and that meet certain taste, bitterness and spiciness criteria are called “virgin” olive oils or, if their acidity is less than 0.8%, “extra virgin” olive oils. These oils contain the majority of the polyphenols in the starting olives and, after centrifugation and filtration, can be consumed as is.

On the other hand, some olive varieties give an inferior quality oil due to too high acidity (> 2%) and/or an unpleasant smell and taste that does not meet the established criteria. These oils, which are unfit for consumption, are called “lampantes” (a name which comes from their ancient use as fuel in oil lamps) and must be refined as is done for other vegetable oils, i.e. using different physicochemical procedures (neutralization with soda, high temperature bleaching and deodorization, hexane extraction, etc.). These steps remove the compounds responsible for the excess acidity and the unpleasant taste of the oil and produce a “neutral” olive oil that has lost its acidity and its flaws, but that is now devoid of the smell, flavour, colour and most of the phenolic components of the starting virgin olive oil. To stabilize these oils and improve their taste, a certain proportion (15–20%) of virgin olive oil is subsequently added and the final product, which is a mixture of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil, is what is sold in grocery stores as “pure olive oil” or simply “olive oil”.

In short, there are three main types of olive oil on the market: virgin olive oil (VOO), extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), and regular olive oil (OO).

Figure 2. The different types of olive oil. From Gorzynik-Debicka et al. (2018).

 

These manufacturing differences obviously have a huge impact on the amount of polyphenols present in virgin, extra virgin, and refined oils (Table 1). For OO-type olive oils (which contain refined oils), the polyphenols come exclusively from virgin olive oil that has been added to restore a minimum of taste and colour (from yellow to greenish) to the chemically treated oil. The amount of these polyphenols is therefore necessarily less than in VOO and EVOO and, as a general rule, does not exceed 25–30% of the content of these two oils. This difference is particularly striking for certain polyphenols of the secoiridoid family (oleuropein, oleocanthal, oleacein and ligstroside) whose concentrations are 3 to 6 times greater in EVOO than in OO (Table 1). It should be noted, however, that these values ​​can vary greatly depending on the origin and cultivar of the olives; for example, some extra virgin olive oils have been found to contain up to 10 times more hydroxytyrosol and tyrosol than regular olive oils. The same goes for other polyphenols like oleocanthal: an analysis of 175 distinct extra virgin olive oils from Greece and California revealed dramatic variations between the different oils, with concentrations of the molecule ranging from 0 to 355 mg/kg.

It should also be mentioned that even if the quantities of phenolic compounds in regular olive oil are lower than those found in virgin and extra virgin oils, they nevertheless largely exceed those present in other vegetable oils (sunflower, peanut, canola, soy), which contain very little or none at all.

FamilyMoleculesOO (mg/kg)VOO (mg/kg)EVOO (mg/kg)
Secoiridoidsoleocanthal38.95 ± 9.2971.47 ± 61.85142.77 ± 73.17
oleacein57.37 ± 27.0477.83 ± 256.09251.60 ± 263.24
oleuropein (aglycone)10.90 ± 0.0095.00 ± 116.0172.20 ± 64.00
ligstroside (aglycone)15.20 ± 0.0069.00 ± 69.0038.04 ± 17.23
Phenolic alcoholshydroxytyrosol6.77 ± 8.263.53 ± 10.197.72 ± 8.81
tyrosol4.11 ± 2.245.34 ± 6.9811.32 ± 8.53
Flavonoidsluteolin1.17 ± 0.721.29 ± 1.933.60 ± 2.32
apigenin0.30 ± 0.170.97 ± 0.7111.68 ± 12.78
Phenolic acidsp-coumaric -0.24 ± 0.810.92 ± 1.03
ferulic -0.19 ± 0.500.19 ± 0.19
cinnamic - -0.17 ± 0.14
caffeic -0.21 ± 0.630.19 ± 0.45
protocatechuic -1.47 ± 0.56 -
Table 1. Comparison of the content of phenolic compounds in olive oil (OO), virgin olive oil (VOO) and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). Please note that the large standard deviations of the mean values reflect the huge variations in polyphenol content depending on the region, cultivar, degree of fruit ripeness, and olive oil manufacturing process. Adapted from Lopes de Souza et al. (2017).

 

Anti-inflammatory spiciness
The amounts of polyphenols contained in a bottle of olive oil are not indicated on its label, but it is possible to detect their presence simply by tasting the oil. The polyphenols in olive oil are indeed essential to the organoleptic sensations so characteristic of this oil, in particular the sensation of tickling or stinging in the throat caused by good quality extra virgin oils, what connoisseurs call “ardour”. Far from being a defect, this ardour is considered by experts as a sign of a superior quality oil and, in tasting competitions, the “spiciest” oils are often those that receive the highest honours.

It is interesting to note that it is by tasting different olive oils that a scientist succeeded, by coincidence, in identifying the molecule responsible for the sensation of spiciness caused by extra virgin olive oil (see box).

Plant ibuprofen

Chance often plays a role in scientific discoveries, and this is especially true when it comes to the discovery of the molecule responsible for the typical irritation caused by olive oil. On a trip to Sicily (Italy) to attend a conference on the organoleptic properties of different foods, Dr. Gary Beauchamp and his colleagues were invited by the organizers of the event to a meal where guests were encouraged to taste extra virgin olive oil from olive trees cultivated on their estate. Even though it was the first time he had tasted this type of olive oil, Dr. Beauchamp was immediately struck by the tingling sensation in his throat, which was similar in every way to that caused by ibuprofen, and that he had experienced multiple times as part of his work to replace acetaminophen (paracetamol) with ibuprofen in cough syrups. Suspecting that olive oil contained a similar anti-inflammatory drug, Dr. Beauchamp and his team subsequently managed to isolate the molecule responsible for this irritation, a polyphenol they called “oleocanthal”. They subsequently discovered that oleocanthal had, like ibuprofen, a powerful anti-inflammatory action and that regular consumption of extra virgin olive oil, rich in oleocanthal, provided an intake equivalent to about 10 mg of ibuprofen and therefore may contribute to the well-documented anti-inflammatory effects of the Mediterranean diet. 

But why is the stinging sensation of olive oil only felt in the throat? According to work carried out by the same group, this exclusive localization is due to a specific interaction of oleocanthal (and ibuprofen, for that matter) with a subtype of heat-sensitive receptor (TRPA1). Unlike other types of heat receptors, which are evenly distributed throughout the oral cavity (the TRPV1 receptor activated by the capsaicin of chili peppers, for example, and which causes the burning sensation of some particularly hot dishes), the TRPA1 receptor is located only in the pharynx and its activation by oleocanthal causes a nerve impulse signalling the presence of an irritant only in this region. In short, the more an olive oil stings in the back of the throat, the more oleocanthal it contains and the more anti-inflammatory properties it has. As a general rule, extra virgin olive oils contain more oleocanthal (and polyphenols in general) than virgin olive oils (see Table 1) and are therefore considered superior, both in terms of taste and their positive effects on health.

The superiority of extra virgin olive oil
Several studies have shown that the higher polyphenol content in extra virgin olive oil is correlated with a greater positive effect on several parameters of cardiovascular health than that observed for regular olive oil (see Table 2). For example, epidemiological studies carried out in Spain have reported a decrease of about 10–14% in the risk of cardiovascular disease among regular consumers of extra virgin olive oil, while regular consumption of olive oil had no significant effect. A role of phenolic compounds is also suggested by the EUROLIVE study where the effect of daily ingestion, over a period of 3 weeks, of 25 mL of olive oils containing small (2.7 mg/kg), medium (164 mg/kg), or high (366 mg/kg) amounts of polyphenols was compared. The results show that an increased intake of polyphenols is associated with an improvement in two important risk factors for cardiovascular disease: an increase in the concentration of HDL cholesterol and a decrease in oxidized LDL cholesterol levels. Collectively, the data gathered from the intervention studies indicate that the polyphenols found in extra virgin olive oil play an extremely important role in olive oil’s positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Measured parameterResultsSources
Incidence of cardiovascular disease10% reduction in risk for every 10 g/day of EVOO. No effect of regular OO.Guasch-Ferré et al. (2014)
14% reduction in risk for each 10 g/day of EVOO. No effect of regular OO.Buckland et al. (2012)
Lipid profileLinear increase in HDL cholesterol as a function of the amount of polyphenols.Covas et al. (2006)
Increase in HDL cholesterol only observed with EVOO.Estruch et al. (2006)
Blood glucoseEVOO improves postprandial glycemic profile (decrease in glucose levels and increased insulin).Violo et al. (2015)
Polyphenol-rich EVOO reduces fasting blood glucose and glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) levels in diabetic patients.Santagelo et al. (2016)
InflammationEVOO, but not OO, induces a decrease in inflammatory markers (TXB(2) and LTB(4)).Bogani et al. (2017)
EVOO, but not OO, induces a decrease in IL-6 and CRP.Fitó et al. (2007)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases the expression of several inflammatory genes.Camargo et al. (2010)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases levels of inflammatory markers sICAM-1 and sVCAM-1.Pacheco et al. (2007)
Oxidative stressStrong in vitro antioxidant activity of phenolic compounds of olive oil.Owen et al. (2000)
Linear decrease in oxidized LDL levels as a function of the amount of polyphenols.Covas et al. (2006)
Lower levels of oxidized LDL after ingestion of EVOO compared to OO.Ramirez-Tortosa et al. (1999)
EVOO phenolic compounds bind to LDL particles and protect them from oxidation.de la Torre-Carbot et al. (2010)
EVOO induces the production of neutralizing antibodies against oxidized LDL.Castañer et al. (2011)
EVOO decreases urinary levels of 8-isoprostane, a marker of oxidative stress.Visioli et al. (2000)
EVOO positively influences the oxidative/antioxidant status of blood plasma.Weinbrenner et al. (2004)
Blood pressureEVOO causes a decrease in systolic and diastolic pressures in hypertensive women.Ruíz-Gutiérrez et al. (1996)
EVOO, but not OO, causes a decrease in systolic pressure in hypertensive coronary patients.Fitó et al. (2005)
EVOO improves postprandial endothelial dilation.Ruano et al. (2005)
EVOO increases the NO vasodilator and decreases systolic and diastolic pressures.Medina-Remón et al. (2015)
EVOO, but not OO, improves vessel dilation in pre-diabetic patients.Njike et al. (2021)
EVOO, but not OO, decreases systolic pressure by 2.5 mmHg in healthy volunteers.Sarapis et al. (2020)
Table 2. Examples of studies comparing the effect of EVOO and OO on several cardiovascular health parameters.

 

In addition to its multiple direct actions on the heart and vessels, it should also be noted that extra virgin olive oil could also exert an indirect beneficial effect, by blocking the formation of the metabolite trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) by intestinal bacteria. Several studies have shown that TMAO accelerates the development of atherosclerosis in animal models and is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular events in clinical studies. Extra virgin olive oils (but not regular olive oils) contain 3,3-dimethyl-1-butanol (DMB), a molecule that blocks a key enzyme involved in TMAO production and prevents development of atherosclerosis in animal models fed a diet rich in animal protein. Taken together, these observations show that there are only advantages to favouring the use of extra virgin olive oil, both for its superior taste and its positive effects on cardiovascular health.

Some people may dislike the slightly peppery taste that extra virgin olive oil leaves in the back of the throat, but interestingly, this irritation is greatly reduced when the oil is mixed with other foods. According to a recent study, this attenuation of the pungent taste is due to the interaction of the polyphenols in the oil with the proteins in food, which blocks the activation of the heat receptors that are normally activated by these polyphenols. People who hesitate to use extra virgin olive oil because of its irritant side can therefore get around this problem and still enjoy the benefits of these oils simply by using it as the main fat when preparing a meal.

Reducing calorie intake by eating more plants

Reducing calorie intake by eating more plants

OVERVIEW

  • Twenty volunteers were fed a low-fat or low-carbohydrate diet in turn for two weeks.
  • Participants on the low-fat diet consumed an average of nearly 700 fewer calories per day than with the low-carbohydrate diet, a decrease correlated with a greater loss of body fat.
  • Compared to the low-carbohydrate diet, the low-fat diet also led to lower cholesterol levels, reduced chronic inflammation, and lowered heart rate and blood pressure.
  • Overall, these results suggest that a diet mainly composed of plants and low in fat is optimal for cardiovascular health, both for its superiority in reducing calorie intake and for its positive impact on several risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

It is estimated that there are currently around 2 billion overweight people in the world, including 600 million who are obese. These statistics are truly alarming because it is clearly established that excess fat promotes the development of several diseases that decrease healthy life expectancy, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer. Identifying the factors responsible for this high prevalence of overweight and the possible ways to reverse this trend as quickly as possible is therefore essential to improve the health of the population and avoid unsustainable pressures on public health systems in the near future.

Energy imbalance
The root cause of overweight, and obesity in particular, is a calorie intake that exceeds the body’s energy needs. To lose weight, therefore, it is essentially a matter of restoring the balance between the calories ingested and the calories expended.

It might seem simple in theory, but in practice most people find it extremely difficult to lose weight. On the one hand, it is much easier to gain weight than to lose weight. During evolution, we have had to deal with periods of prolonged food shortages (and even starvation, in some cases) and our metabolism has adapted to these deficiencies by becoming extremely efficient at accumulating and conserving energy in the form of fat. On the other hand, the environment in which we currently live strongly encourages overconsumption of food. We are literally overwhelmed by an endless variety of attractive food products, which are often inexpensive, easily accessible, and promoted by very aggressive marketing that encourages their consumption. The current epidemic of overweight and obesity thus reflects our biological predisposition to accumulate reserves in the form of fat, a predisposition that is exacerbated by the obesogenic environment that surrounds us.

Eating less to restore balance
The body’s innate tendency to keep energy stored in reserve as fat makes it extremely difficult to lose weight by “burning” those excess calories by increasing the level of physical activity. For example, a person who eats a simple piece of sugar pie (400 calories) will have to walk about 6.5 km to completely burn off those calories, which, of course, is difficult to do on a daily basis. This does not mean that exercise is completely useless for weight loss. Research in recent years shows that exercise can specifically target certain fat stores, especially in the abdominal area. Studies also show that regular physical activity is very important for long-term maintenance of the weight lost from a low-calorie diet. However, there is no doubt that it is first and foremost the calories consumed that are the determining factors in weight gain. Moreover, contrary to what one might think, levels of physical activity have hardly changed for the last thirty years in industrialized countries, and the phenomenal increase in the number of overweight people is therefore mainly a consequence of overconsumption of food. Exercise is essential for the prevention of all chronic diseases and for the maintenance of general good health, but its role in weight loss is relatively minor. For overweight people, the only realistic way to lose weight significantly, and especially to maintain these losses over prolonged periods, is thus to reduce calorie intake.

Less sugar or less fat?
How do we get there? First, it’s important to realize that the surge in the number of overweight people has coincided with a greater availability of foods high in sugar or fat (and sometimes both). All countries in the world, without exception, that have adopted this type of diet have seen their overweight rates skyrocket, so it is likely that this change in eating habits plays a major role in the current obesity epidemic.

However, the respective contributions of sugar and fat to this increase in caloric intake and overweight are still the subjectof vigorous debate:

1) On the one hand, it has been proposed that foods high in fat are particularly obesogenic, since fats are twice as high in calories as carbohydrates, are less effective in causing a feeling of satiety, and improve the organoleptic properties of foods, which generally encourages (often unconscious) overconsumption of food. Therefore, the best way to avoid overeating and becoming overweight would be to reduce the total fat intake (especially saturated fat due to its negative impact on LDL-cholesterol levels) and replace it with complex carbohydrates (vegetables, legumes, whole-grain cereals). This is colloquially called the low-fat approach, advocated for example by the Ornish diet.

2) On the other hand, the exact opposite is proposed, i.e. that it would be mainly carbohydrates that would contribute to overconsumption of food and to the increase in the incidence of obesity. According to this model, carbohydrates in foods in the form of free sugars or refined flours cause insulin levels to rise markedly, causing massive energy storage in adipose tissue. As a result, fewer calories remain available in the circulation for use by the rest of the body, causing increased appetite and overeating to compensate for this lack. In other words, it wouldn’t be because we eat too much that we get fat, but rather because we are too fat we eat too much.

3) By preventing excessive fluctuations in insulin levels, a diet low in carbohydrates would thus limit the anabolic effect of this hormone and, therefore, prevent overeating and the accumulation of excess fat.

Less fat on the menu, fewer calories ingested
To compare the impact of low-carb and low-fat diets on calorie intake, Dr. Kevin Hall’s group (NIH) recruited 20 volunteers who were fed each of these diets in turn for two weeks. The strength of this type of cross-study is that each participant consumes both types of diets and that their effects can therefore be compared directly on the same person.

As shown in Figure 1, the two diets studied were completely opposite of each other, with 75% of the calories in the low-fat (LF) diet coming from carbohydrates versus only 10% from fat, while in the low-carb (LC) diet, 75% of calories were in the form of fat, compared to only 10% from carbohydrates. The LF diet under study consisted exclusively of foods of plant origin (fruits, vegetables, legumes, root vegetables, soy products, whole grains, etc.), while the LC diet contained mainly (82%) animal foods (meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products).

Figure 1. Comparison of the amounts of carbohydrates, fats and proteins present in the low-carbohydrate (LC) and low-fat (LF) diets consumed by study participants. Adapted from Hall et al. (2021).

The study shows that there is indeed a big difference between the two types of diets in the number of calories consumed by participants (Figure 2). Over a two-week period, participants who ate an LF (low-fat) diet consumed an average of nearly 700 calories (kcal) per day less than an LC (low-carbohydrate) diet. This difference in calorie intake is observed for all meals, both at breakfast (240 calories less for the LF diet), at lunch (143 calories less), at dinner (195 calories less), and during snacks taken between meals (128 calories less). This decrease is not caused by a difference in the appreciation of the two diets by the participants, as parallel analyses did not find any difference in the level of appetite of the participants, nor in the degree of satiety and satisfaction generated by the consumption of either diet. However, the LF diet was composed exclusively of plant-based foods and therefore much richer in non-digestible fibres (60 g per day compared to only 20 g for the LC diet), which greatly reduce the energy density of meals (quantity of calories per g of food) compared to the high-fat LC diet. It is therefore very likely that this difference in energy density contributes to the lower calorie intake observed for the low-fat diet.

Overall, these results indicate that a diet consisting of plants, and thus low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates, is more effective than a diet consisting mainly of animal products, high in fat and low in carbohydrates, to limit calorie intake.

Figure 2. Comparison of the daily calorie intake of participants on a low-carbohydrate (LC) or low-fat (LF) diet. From Hall et al. (2021).

Weight loss
Despite the significant difference in calorie intake observed between the two diets, their respective impact on short-term weight loss is more nuanced. At first glance, the LC diet appeared to be more effective than the LF diet in causing rapid weight loss, with about 1 kg lost on average in the first week and almost 2 kg after two weeks, compared to only 1 kg after two weeks of the LF diet (Figure 3). However, further analysis revealed that the weight loss caused by the LC diet was mainly in the form of lean mass (protein, water, glycogen), while this diet had no significant impact on fat loss during this period. Conversely, the LF diet had no effect on this lean body mass, but did cause a significant decrease in body fat, to around 1 kg after two weeks. In other words, only the LF diet caused a loss of body fat during the study period, which strongly suggests that the decrease in calorie intake made possible by this type of diet may facilitate the maintenance of astable body weight and could even promote weight loss in overweight people.

Figure 3. Comparison of changes in body weight (top), lean mass (middle), and body fat (bottom) caused by low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets. From Hall et al. (2021).

Cardiovascular risk factors
In addition to promoting lower calorie intake and fat loss, the LF diet also appears to be superior to the LC diet in terms of its impact on several cardiovascular risk factors (Table 1):

Cholesterol. It is well established that LDL cholesterol levels increase in response to a high intake of saturated fat (see our article on the issue). It is therefore not surprising that the LF diet, which contains only 2% of all calories as saturated fat, causes a significant decrease in cholesterol, both in terms of total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. At first glance, the high-fat LC diet (containing 30% of the daily calorie intake as saturated fat) does not appear to have a major effect on LDL cholesterol; however, it should be noted that this diet significantly modifies the distribution of LDL cholesterol particles, in particular with a significant increase in small and dense LDL particles. Several studies have reported that these small, dense LDL particles infiltrate artery walls more easily and also appear to oxidize more easily, two key events in the development and progression of atherosclerosis. In sum, just two weeks of a high-fat LC diet was enough to significantly (and negatively) alter the atherogenic profile of participants, which may raise doubts about the long-term effects of this type of diet on cardiovascular health.

Table 1. Variations in certain risk factors for cardiovascular disease following a diet low in carbohydrates or low in fat. From Hall et al. (2021).

Branched-chain amino acids. Several recent studies have shown a very clear association between blood levels of branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) and an increased risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, two very important risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. In this sense, it is very interesting to note that the levels of these amino acids are almost twice as high after two weeks of the LC diet compared to the LF diet, suggesting a positive effect of a diet rich in plants and poor in fats in the prevention of these disorders.

Inflammation. Chronic inflammation is actively involved in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries and can lead to the development of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke. Clinically, this level of inflammation is often determined by measuring levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hsCRP), a protein made by the liver and released into the blood in response to inflammatory conditions. As shown in Table 1, the LF diet significantly decreases the levels of this inflammatory marker, another positive effect that argues in favour of a plant-rich diet for the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

In addition to these laboratory data, the researchers noted that participants who were fed the LF diet had a slower heart rate (73 vs. 77 beats/min) as well as lower blood pressure (112/67 vs. 116/69 mm Hg) than observed following the LC diet. In the latter case, this difference could be related, at least in part, to the much higher sodium consumption in the LC diet compared to the LF diet (5938 vs. 3725 mg/day).

All of these results confirm the superiority of a diet mainly composed of plants on all the factors involved in cardiovascular health, whether in terms of lipid profile, chronic inflammation, or adequate control of calorie intake necessary to maintain body weight.

Control of inflammation through diet

Control of inflammation through diet

OVERVIEW

  • Chronic inflammation is actively involved in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries, which can lead to the development of cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke.
  • Two studies show that people whose diet is anti-inflammatory due to a high intake of plants (vegetables, fruits, whole grains), beverages rich in antioxidants (tea, coffee, red wine) or nuts have a significantly lower risk of being affected by cardiovascular disease.
  • This type of anti-inflammatory diet can be easily replicated by adopting the Mediterranean diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains and which has repeatedly been associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular events.

Clinically, the risk of having a coronary event is usually estimated based on age, family history, smoking and physical inactivity as well as a series of measures such as cholesterol levels, blood sugar level and blood pressure. The combination of these factors helps to establish a cardiovascular disease risk “score”, i.e. the likelihood that the patient will develop heart disease over the next ten years. When this score is moderate (10 to 20%) or high (20% and more), one or more specific drugs are generally prescribed in addition to recommending lifestyle changes in order to reduce the risk of cardiovascular events.

These estimates are useful, but they do not take into account other factors known to play an important role in the development of cardiovascular disease. This is especially true for chronic inflammation, a process that actively participates in the formation and progression of plaques that form on the lining of the arteries and can lead to cardiovascular events such as myocardial infarction and stroke.

The clinical significance of this chronic inflammation is well illustrated by studies of patients who have had a heart attack and are treated with a statin to lower their LDL cholesterol levels. Studies show that a high proportion (about 40%) of these people have excessively high blood levels of inflammatory proteins, and it is likely that this residual inflammatory risk contributes to the high rate of cardiovascular mortality (nearly 30%) that affects these patients within two years of starting treatment, despite a significant reduction in LDL cholesterol. In this sense, it is interesting to note that the canakinumab antibody, which neutralizes an inflammatory protein (interleukin-1 β), causes a slight but significant decrease in major cardiovascular events in coronary patients. Statins, used to lower LDL cholesterol levels, are also believed to have an anti-inflammatory effect (reduction in C-reactive protein levels) that would contribute to reducing the risk of cardiovascular events. One of the roles of inflammation is also demonstrated by the work of Dr. Jean-Claude Tardif of the Montreal Heart Institute, which shows that the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine significantly reduces the risk of recurrence of cardiovascular events.

Reducing chronic inflammation is therefore a very promising approach for decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease, both in people who have already had a heart attack and are at a very high risk of recurrence and in healthy people who are at high risk of cardiovascular disease.

Anti-inflammatory diet
Two studies published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology suggest that the nature of the diet can greatly influence the degree of chronic inflammation and, in turn, the risk of cardiovascular disease. In the first of these two articles, researchers analyzed the link between diet-induced inflammation and the risk of cardiovascular disease in 166,000 women and 44,000 men followed for 24 to 30 years. The inflammatory potential of the participants’ diet was estimated using an index based on the known effect of various foods on the blood levels of 3 inflammatory markers (interleukin-6, TNFα-R2, and C-reactive protein or CRP). For example, consumption of red meat, deli meats and ultra-processed industrial products is associated with an increase in these markers, while that of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beverages rich in antioxidants (tea, coffee, red wine) is on the contrary associated with a decrease in their blood levels. People who regularly eat pro-inflammatory foods therefore have a higher inflammatory food index, while those whose diet is rich in anti-inflammatory foods have a lower index.

Using this approach, the researchers observed that a higher dietary inflammatory index was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, with a 40% increase in risk in those with the highest index (Figure 1). This increased risk associated with inflammation is particularly pronounced for coronary heart disease (acute coronary syndromes including myocardial infarction) with an increased risk of 46%, but seems less pronounced for cerebrovascular accidents (stroke) (28% increase in risk). The study shows that a higher dietary inflammation index was also associated with two risk markers for cardiovascular disease, higher circulating triglyceride levels as well as lower HDL cholesterol. These results therefore indicate that there is a link between the degree of chronic inflammation generated by diet and the risk of long-term cardiovascular disease, in agreement with data from a recent meta-analysis of 14 epidemiological studies that have explored this association.

Figure 1. Change in the risk of cardiovascular disease depending on the inflammatory potential of the diet. From Li et al. (2020). The dotted lines indicate the 95% confidence interval.

Anti-inflammatory nuts
A second study by a group of Spanish researchers investigated the anti-inflammatory potential of walnuts. Several epidemiological studies have reported that regular consumption of nuts is associated with a marked decrease in the risk of cardiovascular disease. For example, a recent meta-analysis of 19 prospective studies shows that people who consume the most nuts (28 g per day) have a lower risk of developing coronary artery disease (18%) or of dying from these diseases (23%). These reductions in the risk of cardiovascular disease may be explained in part by the decrease in LDL cholesterol (4%) and triglyceride (5%) levels observed following the consumption of nuts in intervention studies. However, this decrease remains relatively modest and cannot alone explain the marked reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease observed in the studies.

The results of the Spanish study strongly suggest that a reduction in inflammation could greatly contribute to the preventative effect of nuts. In this study, 708 people aged 63 to 79 were divided into two groups, a control group whose diet was completely nut free and an intervention group, in which participants consumed about 15% of their calories daily in the form of walnuts (30–60 g/day). After a period of 2 years, the researchers observed large variations in the blood levels of several inflammatory markers between the two groups (Figure 2), in particular for GM-CSF (a cytokine that promotes the production of inflammatory cells) and interleukin-1 β (a highly inflammatory cytokine whose blood levels are correlated with an increased risk of death during a heart attack). This reduction in IL-1 β levels is particularly interesting because, as mentioned earlier, a randomized clinical study (CANTOS) has shown that an antibody neutralizing this cytokine leads to a reduction in the risk of myocardial infarction in coronary heart patients.

Figure 2. Reduction in blood levels of several inflammatory markers by a diet enriched with nuts. From Cofán et al. (2020). GM-CSF: granulocyte-monocyte colony stimulating factor; hs-CRP: high-sensitivity C-reactive protein; IFN: interferon; IL: interleukin; SAA: serum amyloid A; sE-sel: soluble E-selectin; sVCAM: soluble vascular cell adhesion molecule; TNF: tumour necrosis factor.

Taken together, these studies therefore confirm that an anti-inflammatory diet provides concrete benefits in terms of preventing cardiovascular disease. This preventative potential remains largely unexploited, as Canadians consume about half of all their calories in the form of ultra-processed pro-inflammatory foods, while less than a third of the population eats the recommended minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables and less than 5% of the recommended three servings of whole grains. This imbalance causes most people’s diets to be pro-inflammatory, contributes to the development of cardiovascular diseases as well as other chronic diseases, including certain common cancers such as colon cancer, and reduces the life expectancy.

The easiest way to restore this balance and reduce inflammation is to eat a diet rich in plants while reducing the intake of industrial products. The Mediterranean diet, for example, is an exemplary anti-inflammatory diet due to its abundance of fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains, and its positive impact will be all the greater if regular consumption of these foods reduces that of pro-inflammatory foods such as red meat, deli meats and ultra-processed products. Not to mention that this diet is also associated with a high intake of fibre, which allows the production of anti-inflammatory short-chain fatty acids by the intestinal microbiota, and of phytochemicals such as polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

In summary, these recent studies demonstrate once again the important role of diet in preventing chronic disease and improving healthy life expectancy.

The importance of properly controlling your blood pressure

The importance of properly controlling your blood pressure

OVERVIEW

  • Hypertension is the main risk factor for cardiovascular disease and is responsible for 20% of deaths worldwide.
  • Early hypertension, before the age of 45, is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline and premature mortality.
  • Adopting an overall healthy lifestyle (normal weight, not smoking, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, and a good diet including sodium reduction) remains the best way to maintain adequate blood pressure.

According to the latest data from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019, excessively high blood pressure was responsible for 10.8 million deaths worldwide in 2019, or 19.2% of all deaths recorded. This devastating impact is a direct consequence of the enormous damage caused by hypertension on the cardiovascular system. Indeed, a very large number of studies have clearly shown that excessive blood pressure, above 130/80 mm Hg (see box for a better understanding of blood pressure values), is closely linked to a significant increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke.

 

Systolic and diastolic

It is important to remember that blood pressure is always expressed in the form of two values, namely systolic pressure and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure is the pressure of the blood ejected by the left ventricle during the contraction of the heart (systole), while diastolic pressure is that measured between two beats, during the filling of the heart (diastole). To measure both pressures, the arterial circulation in the arm is completely blocked using an inflatable cuff, then the cuff pressure is allowed to gradually decrease until blood begins to flow back into the artery. This is the systolic pressure. By continuing to decrease the swelling of the cuff, we then arrive at a pressure from which there is no longer any obstacle to the passage of blood in the artery, even when the heart is filling. This is the diastolic pressure. A blood pressure value of 120/80 mm Hg, for example, therefore represents the ratio of systolic (120 mm Hg) and diastolic (80 mm Hg) pressures.

As shown in Figure 1, this risk of dying prematurely from coronary heart disease is moderate up to a systolic pressure of 130 mm Hg or a diastolic pressure of 90 mm Hg, but increases rapidly thereafter to almost 4 times for pressures equal to or greater than 150/98 mm Hg. This impact of hypertension is even more pronounced for stroke, with an 8 times higher risk of mortality for people with systolic pressure above 150 mm Hg and 4 times higher for a diastolic pressure greater than 98 mm Hg (Figure 1, bottom graph). Consequently, high blood pressure is by far the main risk factor for stroke, being responsible for about half of the mortality associated with this disease.


Figure 1. Association between blood pressure levels and the risk of death from coronary heart disease or stroke. From Stamler et al. (1993).

Early hypertension
Blood pressure tends to increase with aging as blood vessels become thicker and less elastic over time (blood circulates less easily and creates greater mechanical stress on the vessel wall). On the other hand, age is not the only risk factor for high blood pressure: sedentary lifestyle, poor diet (too much sodium intake, in particular), and excess body weight are all lifestyle factors that promote the development of hypertension, including in younger people.

In industrialized countries, these poor lifestyle habits are very common and contribute to a fairly high prevalence of hypertensive people, even among young adults. In Canada, for example, as many as 15% of adults aged 20–39 and 39% of those aged 40–59 have blood pressure above 130/80 mm Hg (Figure 2).


Figure 2. Prevalence of hypertension in the Canadian population. Hypertension is defined as systolic pressure ≥ 130 mm Hg or diastolic pressure ≥ 80 mm Hg, according to the 2017 criteria of the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association. The data are from Statistics Canada.

This proportion of young adults with hypertension is lower than that observed in older people (three in four people aged 70 and over have hypertension), but it can nevertheless have major repercussions on the health of these people in the longer term. Several recent studies indicate that it is not only hypertension per se that represents a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, but also the length of time a person is exposed to these high blood pressures. For example, a recent study reported that onset of hypertension before the age of 45 doubles the risk of cardiovascular disease and premature death, while onset of hypertension later in life (55 years and older) has a much less pronounced impact (Figure 3). These findings are consistent with studies showing that early hypertension is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular mortality and damage to target organs (heart, kidneys, brain). In the case of the brain, high blood pressure in young adults has been reported to be associated with an increased risk of cognitive decline at older ages. Conversely, a recent meta-analysis suggests that a reduction in blood pressure with the help of antihypertensive drugs is associated with a lower risk of dementia or reduced cognitive function.

Figure 3. Change in risk of cardiovascular disease (red) or death from all causes (blue) depending on the age at which hypertension begins. Adapted from Wang et al. (2020).

Early hypertension should therefore be considered an important risk factor, and young adults can benefit from managingtheir blood pressure as early as possible, before this excessively high blood pressure causes irreparable damage.

The study of barbershops
In African-American culture, barbershops are gathering places that play a very important role in community cohesion. For health professionals, frequent attendance at these barbershops also represents a golden opportunity to regularly meet Black men to raise their awareness of certain health problems that disproportionately affect them. This is particularly the case with hypertension: African American men 20 years and older have one of the highest prevalence of high blood pressure in the world, with as many as 59% of them being hypertensive. Also, compared to whites, Black men develop high blood pressure earlier in their lives and this pressure is on average much higher.

A recent study indicates that barbershops may raise awareness among African Americans about the importance of controlling their blood pressure and promoting the treatment of hypertension. In this study, researchers recruited 319 African Americans aged 35 to 79 who were hypertensive (average blood pressure approximately 153 mm Hg) and who were regular barbershop customers. Participants were randomly assigned to two groups: 1) an intervention group, in which clients were encouraged to see, in the barbershops, pharmacists specially trained to diagnose and treat hypertension and 2) a control group, in which barbers suggested that clients make lifestyle changes and seek medical attention. In the intervention group, pharmacists met regularly with clients during their barbershop visits, prescribed antihypertensive drugs, and monitored their blood pressure.

After only 6 months, the results obtained were nothing short of spectacular: the blood pressure of the intervention group fell by 27 mm Hg (to reach 125.8 mm Hg on average), compared to only 9.3 mm Hg (to reach 145 mm Hg on average) for the control group. Normal blood pressure (less than 130/80 mm Hg) was achieved in 64% of participants in the intervention group, while only 12% of those in the control group were successful. A recent update of the study showed that the beneficial effects of the intervention were long-lasting, with continued pressure reductions still observed one year after the start of the study.

These reductions in blood pressure obtained in the intervention group are of great importance, as several studies have clearly shown that pharmacological treatment of hypertension causes a significant reduction in the risk of cardiovascular diseases, including coronary heart disease and stroke, as well as kidney failure. This study therefore shows how important it is to know your blood pressure and, if it is above normal, to normalize it with medication or through lifestyle changes.

The importance of lifestyle
This last point is particularly important for the many people who have blood pressure slightly above normal, but without reaching values ​​as high as those of the participants of the study mentioned above (150/90 mm Hg and above). In these people, an increase in the level of physical activity, a reduction in sodium intake, and body weight loss can lower blood pressure enough to allow it to reach normal levels. For example, obesity is a major risk factor for hypertension and a weight loss of 10 kg is associated with a reduction in systolic pressure from 5 mm to 10 mm Hg. This positive influence of lifestyle is observed even in people who have certain genetic variants that predispose them to high blood pressure. For example, adopting an overall healthy lifestyle (normal weight, not smoking, regular physical activity, moderate alcohol consumption, and a good diet including sodium reduction) has been shown to be associated with blood pressure approximately 3 mm Hg lower and a 30% reduction in the risk of cardiovascular disease, regardless of the genetic risk. Conversely, an unhealthy lifestyle increases blood pressure and the risk of cardiovascular disease, even in those who are genetically less at risk of hypertension.

In short, taking your blood pressure regularly, even at a young age, can literally save your life. The easiest way to regularly check your blood pressure is to purchase one of the many models of blood pressure monitors available in pharmacies or specialty stores. Take the measurement in a seated position, legs uncrossed and with the arm resting on a table so that the middle of the arm is at the level of the heart. Two measurements in the morning before having breakfast and drinking coffee and two more measurements in the evening before bedtime (wait at least 2 hours after the end of the meal) generally give an accurate picture of blood pressure, which should be below 135/85 mm Hg on average according to Hypertension Canada.

Chile, an example of aggressive state intervention to combat the obesity epidemic

Chile, an example of aggressive state intervention to combat the obesity epidemic

OVERVIEW

  • Chile, like most countries in Latin America, has seen the incidence of obesity in its population skyrocket over the past 20 years.
  • This rise in overweight is directly correlated with overconsumption of ultra-processed industrial foods, especially sugary drinks.
  • To reverse this situation, a law severely restricting the promotion, sale and labelling of these products was introduced in 2016, and this tough approach seems to be starting to bear fruit.

From a medical point of view, one of the greatest upheavals of the 20th century was certainly the dramatic increase in the body weight of the world population. Globally, recent estimates indicate that about 2 billion adults are overweight (BMI between 25 and 30), including 650 million who are obese (BMI> 30), about three times more than in 1975. This very rapid increase in the proportion of overweight people has several consequences on the health of the population because overweight and obesity are associated with significant increases in the incidence of several chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and several types of cancer, that reduce healthy life expectancy. In addition to these chronic diseases, the COVID-19 pandemic has also shown that obesity is associated with an increased risk of developing serious complications of the disease and of dying from it. The increase in the number of overweight people is therefore one of the main public health problems of our time and is in the process of erasing the gains achieved as a result of the sharp decline in smoking in recent years.

From undernutrition to overnutrition
This rapid increase in the incidence of obesity is observed globally, but has been particularly noticeable in low- and middle-income countries. Until the late 1970s, the main nutritional problem faced by these countries was the high food insecurity of their populations and the high proportion of children suffering from malnutrition. With the globalization of trade that began in the 1980s, the standard of living of these populations began to resemble more and more that of richer countries, both for some of its positive aspects (access to safe drinking water, hygiene, reduction of infectious diseases and infant mortality, education) as well as for its negative ones (sedentary lifestyle, diet based on ultra-processed foods and fast food).

The result is that all countries, without exception, that have adopted these new eating habits and the Western way of life now have to deal with a greater proportion of obese individuals. In poorer countries, this “nutritional transition” has been so rapid that the increase in the body weight of the population can also coexist with malnutrition. For poor people, the high availability and low cost of ultra-processed foods provide for their energy needs, but the lack of nutrients in these foods means that the excess of calories ingested is paradoxically accompanied by a nutritional deficiency. While this may seem surprising at first glance, overnutrition and undernutrition can therefore occur simultaneously in a population, sometimes within the same family.

Latin America hit hard
Latin America is probably one of the best examples of the impact of these dietary changes on the incidence of obesity and the diseases associated with being overweight. Mexico, for example, was the country that experienced the largest increase in obesity globally between 1990 and 2010, and in 2014, more than 300 million adults living in Latin America were overweight, including 100 million who were obese. The situation may even worsen over the next few years due to the high incidence of childhood obesity, which reaches, for example, 12% in Chile and 11% in Mexico (a percentage similar to that of Canadian children, among the highest in the world).

The economic growth of the 1990s led to a rush for typical North American products such as fast food, televisions and cars, leading to increased calorie intake and a parallel decrease in physical activity levels. The very high consumption of ultra-processed foods, in particular sugary drinks, is certainly one of the new eating habits that contribute to the increase in overweight of the inhabitants of these regions. Globally, three of the four countries consuming the highest number of calories in the form of sugary drinks are in Latin America, with Chile and Mexico in first and second place, followed by Argentina in fourth place just behind the United States (Figure 1).


Figure 1. Comparison of the number of calories from sugary drinks sold in different countries in 2014. Note the very high consumption of these drinks in Chile (red asterisk), more than twice as high as in Canada (black asterisk). From Popkin (2016).

Several studies indicate that this overconsumption of added sugars is generally associated with a poor quality diet (low in nutrients) and significantly contributes to the development of obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This is especially true in Latin America, as some studies indicate that in the presence of a high sugar intake, some people of Hispanic descent are genetically predisposed to develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, an abnormal buildup of fat in the liver that is closely related to the development of type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Government response
The close link between the consumption of ultra-processed foods and the increased risk of obesity illustrates the chasm between the financial interests of the multinational food companies that manufacture these products and the health of the population. The goal of these companies is obviously not to make people sick, but it is undeniable that their primary goal remains to generate profits, without worrying too much about whether the consumption of their products can lead to the development of a large number of chronic diseases.

Governments do not have this luxury, however, as they have to deal directly with the enormous pressures that diseasesassociated with being overweight place on health systems. A simple and straightforward approach that has been adopted by several countries is to introduce a tax on these industrial food products, in particular soft drinks. The principle is the same as for all taxes on other unhealthy products such as alcohol and tobacco, i.e. higher prices are generally associated with lower consumption. Studies that have examined the impact of this approach for soft drinks indicate that this is indeed the case, with decreases in consumption observed (among others) in Mexico, Berkeley (California) and Barbados. Despite the legendary reluctance of politicians to impose new taxes, there is no doubt that this approach represents a promising tool, especially if the amounts collected are reinvested in order to improve the diet of the population (subsidies for the purchase of fruits and vegetables, for example).

Another, even more promising, approach is to help consumers make an informed choice by informing them of the sugar, fat, salt and calorie content of products. This information currently exists, but in the form of nutritional labels that are quite difficult to interpret. The amounts of sugar, saturated fat, sodium and calories are indeed indicated on these labels, but refer to percentages of the recommended daily intake. For most people, seeing that the sugar content of a particular food is, for example, “15% of the recommended intake” is a rather abstract concept that does not specify whether this amount is low, adequate or too high. A simpler and more straightforward way is to clearly indicate on the front of the product whether it is high in sugar, fat or salt, as is the case in Chile. In response to the rampant rise in obesity in its population, the country’s Ministry of Health has introduced a labelling system, featured on the front of the package, which allows consumers to immediately see whether a product contains high amounts of sugar, saturated fat, sodium and calories (Figure 2).Figure 2. Labels produced by the Chilean Ministry of Health (Ministerio de Salud) and affixed to the packaging of products sold in stores. The labels indicate a high content (alto) in sugar (azúcares), saturated fat (grasas saturadas), salt (sodio) or calories (calorías). From Kanter et al. (2019).

These labels help consumers make better choices and can encourage the industry to reformulate their products to escape this labelling and become more attractive. It should be noted that Health Canada has also developed a labelling project of the same type, but the adoption of this practice is still pending, more than two years after the end of public consultations. Mexico, meanwhile, has recently moved forward with a system similar to that of Chile, as have Peru, Uruguay and Israel.

The Chilean approach is part of a comprehensive plan to fight obesity, largely based on changing a food culture that is far too focused on ultra-processed products. In addition to the new labelling system, Chile’s Law of Food Labelling and Advertising introduced in 2016 prohibits the sale of caloric products (ice cream, soft drinks, chips, etc.) in schools, imposes severe restrictions on the marketing of industrial products (elimination of characters loved by children on cereal boxes, ban on sales of candy containing toys, e.g., Kinder), prohibits the advertising of these products on programs or websites aimed at young people, and imposes an 18% tax on sugary drinks, one of the highest in the world. This strong government intervention seems to be paying off: a recent study shows that the consumption of sugary drinks fell 25% within 18 months of the law’s implementation, while that of bottled water increased by 5%. The authorities are now considering expanding the scope of the law by introducing an additional tax on all junk food products.

In North America, we remain extremely passive in the face of the dramatic increase in the number of overweight people in our society. Yet the burden of overweight-related illnesses weighs heavily on our health care system here too, and as mentioned earlier, the future looks bleak as we are now among the world leaders in childhood obesity. The example of Chile shows that governments have concrete legislative means that can be used to try to reverse this trend. Faced with an industry that refuses to self-discipline, the authorities must take a much more aggressive approach to protect the population from the health problems associated with the overconsumption of ultra-processed foods, especially among young people. The risk of obesity is established very early in life, since half of children and adolescents who become obese are already overweight when they enter kindergarten.

Plant-based meat substitutes reduce certain cardiovascular risk factors

Plant-based meat substitutes reduce certain cardiovascular risk factors

OVERVIEW

  • Participants in a study were divided into two groups, for eight weeks, one consumed two daily servings of plant-based meat substitutes (Beyond Meat products: burger, mock beef, sausage, mock chicken), while the other group ate the same amount of real meat (beef, pork, chicken).
  • Participants who ate plant-based meat substitutes lost some weight and had significantly lower blood levels of trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) and LDL cholesterol than those who consumed meat during the same period.
  • Plant-based meat substitutes appear to be beneficial for health compared to meat since high levels of TMAO and LDL cholesterol are two risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In an article published in these pages in 2019, we discussed the merits and drawbacks of new food products that mimic the taste and texture of meat, such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger. These products are certainly more environmentally friendly than red meat (beef and pork in particular), which requires a lot of resources that tax the global environment. On the other hand, they are ultra-processed products that contain significant amounts of saturated fat and salt.

To determine whether plant-based meat substitutes could be healthier than meat, the Beyond Meat company funded Dr. Christopher D. Gardner, an independent and renowned researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, to conduct a randomized controlled study. One must be extremely careful with studies funded by the food industry, since publishing only the results that will support the sale of their products is to their advantage. On the other hand, in the case of this study, all precautions seem to have been taken so that there is no influence on the results: study design (randomized and controlled with a crossover design), statistical analyses conducted by a third party who was not involved in the design of the study and data collection. Beyond Meat was not involved in the design of the study, the conduct of the study, or the analysis of the data. In addition, Dr. Gardner stated that he has already completed six food industry-sponsored studies with null findings from the original hypothesis.

The 36 study participants were randomly divided into two groups. During the first eight weeks, one group of participants were assigned to eat two servings/day of plant-based meat substitutes (Beyond Meat products: burger, mock beef, sausages, mock chicken), while the other group consumed two servings/day of meat (beef, pork, chicken). The two groups then switched their diet for the next eight weeks (crossover study design). Fasting levels of lipids, glucose, insulin, and trimethylamine oxide (TMAO) were measured before the start of the study and every two weeks during both phases of the study.

The main endpoint of the study was the blood level of TMAO, an emerging risk factor associated with atherosclerosis and other cardiovascular diseases. The group that consumed meat during the first eight weeks had a significantly higher TMAO mean level than the group that consumed plant-based meat substitutes (4.7 vs. 2.7 µM), as well as a higher LDL cholesterol (the “bad cholesterol”) mean level (121 vs. 110 mg/dL), while the mean HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”) level was not significantly different.

A surprise awaited the researchers: Participants who first consumed plant-based products during the first eight weeks did not see their TMAO levels increase when they ate meat during the second part of the study. Researchers were unable to identify any changes in the microbiome (gut flora) that could have explained this difference. However, it appears that making the participants “vegetarian” for eight weeks caused them to lose the ability to produce TMAO from meat. This effect of a vegetarian diet on the microbiome has already been demonstrated by Dr. Stanley L. Hazen’s team at the Cleveland Clinic. After a few weeks of returning to a carnivorous diet, the microbiome begins to produce TMAO again from red meat and eggs.

TMAO is a metabolite produced by the gut microbiome from carnitine and choline, two compounds found in large quantities in red meat such as beef and pork. High concentrations of TMAO can promote atherosclerosis and thrombosis. Indeed, numerous observational studies and animal models have shown that there is an association between TMAO and cardiovascular risk, and that it is beneficial to reduce the levels of TMAO. It should be noted, however, that a causal link between TMAO and cardiovascular disease has not been established and that it is possible that it is a marker rather than a causal agent of these diseases.

In addition to the favourable effect on TMAO, participants who ate plant-based meat substitutes lost weight (1 kg on average) and had significantly lower LDL-cholesterol levels than those who ate meat (110 vs. 121 mg/dL). These differences were observed regardless of the order in which participants followed the two diets.

Beyond Meat probably hopes that these results will allow them to respond to criticisms about their products, which areultra-processed and contain a lot of salt and almost as much saturated fat as meat. Many people want to reduce their consumption of red meat, but do not like classic vegetarian dishes. It seems to us that if these meat substitutes appeal to consumers concerned about maintaining good health and allow them to reduce their meat consumption, this will be beneficial for them and may encourage them to cook veggie burgers and other plant-based meat substitutes themselves. Who knows, maybe these products will lead to significant changes in diet in the future. Considerably reducing our meat consumption can only be beneficial to our health and that of the planet.