Meat Substitutes: Are They Really Healthy for You?
Meat substitutes seem to be everywhere you look these days. Let your eyes wander down the menu of your favorite restaurant and you’ll probably find at least one meat-alternative entree on the list. Many burger joints have options using Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger. At the grocery store, you’ll find plant-based burgers and meatballs in the refrigerated section close to ground beef.
Health benefits. Research has shown adding more meatless meals to your diet can improve heart health. Meat substitutes are not as related to these health benefits as plant-based protein, like legumes. Some people make the switch to meat substitutes because all are cholesterol-free and some are lower in saturated fat than animal products. Dietary cholesterol doesn’t affect blood cholesterol as much as saturated fat — something that is often equivalent in meat substitutes.
While beef and pork do contain protein, vitamins and minerals, going meatless can give you an array of health benefits that only plant-based foods can offer, according to the Cleveland Clinic. When meat substitutes are made from whole-food plant protein sources like nuts, beans and whole soy, eating them provides prebiotics and fiber. This promotes good gut health and can strengthen your immune and digestive systems. Hearty carbs and healthy fats found in meatless proteins can also help balance blood sugar levels.
So why are we seeing so many meat substitutes, and how do they stack up against beef and pork when it comes to health benefits? Are these alternatives really healthy for you? The answer is, it depends on what’s in them. Meat substitutes can offer health benefits, but they’re not all created equal. Watch out for these red flags:
- Ultra processing. What can make meat substitutes not healthy is food processing, which can lead to nutrient loss. Phytochemicals, for example, play a role in chronic disease prevention, but they can be damaged in highly processed foods. Minimally processed plant foods are a better alternative.
- Fillers added. Some meat substitutes are made with inexpensive fillers that offer little to no nutrients. Look for foods with fewer unrecognizable names on ingredient lists.
- Nutrient loss. Vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals can be lost in ultra-processed foods. Aim for substitutes predominantly made with whole foods like beans, lentils, tofu and other legumes, and soy products.
Substitutes offer more choices. The increased interest in plant-based diets is spurred by concerns both about people’s health and the planet. Reducing consumption of meat and dairy is one way to stop the devastating impacts of climate change, according to a 2019 special report by the United Nations’ climate change experts. As consumer demand for meat substitutes increases, people are seeing more of them on menus and in grocery stores. More people are curious about — or embracing — a more meatless lifestyle for health, environmental or even ethical reasons.
What are meat substitutes? Simply, these are meat-like food items made from plants. Ingredients might include beans, pea protein, lentils or other legumes. Mushrooms, soy and wheat might also be in the mix. But not all meat substitutes are the same, as some have gone through a lot of processing, adding unhealthy ingredients and unneeded sodium. Look for options that include legumes or tofu as the first ingredient. Many meat substitutes are created to have a thick, crumbly texture that gives them the same mouthfeel as beef or pork when you chew them. They may even have that same rich “umami” flavor you taste when you eat real meat.
What to watch out for. Not all meat substitutes are considered healthy. Some can pack more saturated fat into a serving than regular meat. So, understanding the ingredients and reading the label of any product you buy from the store is important. Here are some signs a meat substitute may not be the healthiest food for you:
- Too much fat and sodium: Check the per-serving totals for these two items. Less than 10% of your daily calories should be from saturated fat. And it’s recommended adults consume less than 2,300 mg of sodium each day.
- Not enough protein: Adults should aim for about 20 grams of protein per meal. A meatless item can replace the main protein portion of your meal, but look for ways to make it up in other parts of your meal.
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