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As the chair of Harvard’s Nutrition department put it, transitioning global diets towards healthy plant-based dietary patterns would require large-scale public health efforts, but could be instrumental in ensuring future human health.
In my book How Not to Diet, in the chapter on habit formation, I talk about how you can change your existing bad habits to good ones––or establish new good habits from scratch––using a technique known as implementation intentions. Instead of vague self-promises to “do our best,” implementation intentions are specific if-then plans to perform a particular behavior in a specific context. They take the form of “When situation X arises, I will perform response Y.” For example, If I get hungry after dinner, I will eat an apple. If the triggering circumstance is a regular, daily occurrence, implementation intentions can be the beginning of a beautiful habit.
So, what about using implementation intentions to cut down on meat? After all, most food choices are just due to ingrained habits, and meat is no exception. Here, they were trying to get people to change from a climate perspective, noting more greenhouse gas emissions from animal ag than all cars, trucks, trains, ships, and planes combined. But whatever the reason, researchers randomized people to form “if–then plans” (for example, “If I visit the university cafeteria for lunch tomorrow, then I will choose one of the vegetarian meals”). Motivating people to consciously form an implementation intention specifying how to implement a goal seems to be such a simple technique, but it works. Forming an implementation intention led people not only to think more often about their intention to reduce meat consumption, but also to eat less meat, despite the strong force of habit. On one hand, breaking a habit may be one of the most challenging tasks we set ourselves. On the other hand, a first, yet effective, step in getting there seems to be writing down the goal of change in the form of an if-then statement on a piece of paper. Even a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
How else can we transition to reduced-meat diets? We talked about making the healthier option the default option. We could also minimize disruption, by producing affordable, recognizable, and tasty plant-based alternatives. The topic of plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) has been discussed for several decades, but it has only recently become one of the hottest topics in the food and research communities. After all, one of the largest perceived barriers for switching diets was the enjoyment of eating meat. And so, if you can deliver a similar taste and mouthfeel, it could help people shift. And it seems like it’s working. In recent years in North America, plant-meat sales grew by 37 percent.
I did a whole 12-part video series on the human health implications of various meat substitutes, but that was before this study came out: the “Study With Appetizing Plantfood—Meat Eating Alternative Trial”, or SWAP-MEAT. The company that makes the Beyond Burger decided to put up or shut up by funding a study through Chris Gardner’s prestigious lab at Stanford. A randomized crossover trial to compare the effect of consuming plant-based alternative meat to animal meat on human health by having people eat at least two servings a day of plant versus animal meat for eight weeks each, while keeping everything else as similar as possible. So, instead of burgers and beef from cows, sausage from pigs, and breasts from chickens, they ate burgers, sausage, and chicken made from plants. Now, if they were trying to game it to give Beyond Meat an advantage, they’d have chosen the worst possible meats to compare it to. But no, the meat was organic, grass-fed to give the fairest comparison possible.
So, what happened? Significant drop in TMAO levels during the plant-based meat phase. That’s a good thing, as I’ve explored before. The consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs can be turned by bad gut bacteria into trimethylamine, which is oxidized by our liver into TMAO, which is associated with heart failure, kidney failure, and our number one killer, atherosclerosis, the hardening of our arteries.
The plant-based meat group also achieved a significant drop in cholesterol. No surprise, given the lower saturated fat intake. Of course, if they had been eating whole plant foods instead, like beans, saturated fat would have been way down, fiber way up, and sodium way down. In fact, there was basically no difference in sodium intake. So, no surprise, no difference in blood pressure.
The big surprise was weight. During the plant-based meat phase, they inadvertently lost a couple pounds. Some of the plant-based meats are highly processed, and normally you’d expect people to gain weight. However, weight was modestly but statistically significantly lower after eight weeks on the plant rather than on the animal phase. Notably, this was observed despite no differences in reported total calorie intake or physical activity levels between each phase. Same calories, yet less weight. We’ve seen this before. Same calorie restriction, yet more weight-loss eating more plant-based; slimmer waist, less body fat. That may be from the fewer branched-chain amino acids in plant protein compared to animal protein. Or, because the resting metabolic rate in those eating vegetarian is as much as 20 percent higher; so, you’re basically just burning more calories in your sleep.
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