Updated: Jul 10
Over the last decade, there's been a steady rise in the availability and popularity of plant-based meats. But are they really healthier than what they're trying to replace? Are they better for the environment? Are they worth considering or adding to your plate? Do I feed them to my kids? In this article, I'll break down what they are, how they're made and what nutrients they contain, including the good and the bad. We'll also see how they measure up to their meat counterparts.
THE RISE OF PLANT-BASED MEATS
Due to increases in demand, plant-based meat substitutes have gained quite the following. Social media has helped spread a message of environmental suffering and has also shone a light on the steady rise in chronic diseases linked to excessive meat consumption. Lots of people are trying to cut back on red and processed meats, which is a good plan since they've officially been classified as carcinogens. Although they've been around for a while, fake-meat products have gained lots of popularity thanks to this increased awareness about the not so sexy side of meat, as well as some great marketing tactics, including celebrity endorsements. But what about the scientific data surrounding these trendy meat replacements? Considered to be processed foods, are they as bad as other ultra refined, yet highly palatable foods?
WHAT ARE PLANT-BASED MEATS?
Plant-based meats, as the name states, are made from plants and contain no animal products. They're usually made from plant protein isolates, like pea protein for Beyond Meat, soy protein for the Impossible Burger and wheat protein isolates for others. It's important to note that these meat substitutes are highly processed and some contain a very long list of ingredients. They are engineered for shelf stability and to have the same mouth-feel as meat, in order to encourage a seamless transition towards more plants, or away from more meat. Some will transition to plant-predominance to improve their health, while others want to reduce their carbon footprint in hopes of helping make the planet healthier through an eco-friendly and sustainable diet.
Here, I'll break down the nutrition offered by meat substitutes. Now let's not kid ourselves, plant-based meats are processed foods and although I prefer to make my own burger out of whole food ingredients that I have at home, like legumes and walnuts, I do understand that many seek the convenience, taste and mouth-feel of a real meat patty. That’s precisely why many people are making the switch towards meat substitutes, since studies suggest that most foodies are unable to tell the difference between them, or actually prefer eating the meat substitute.
When researchers wanted to compare the nutrients of both meats and meat-substitutes, they started with the nutrients most associated with negative health impacts: saturated fats, trans fats, sodium and cholesterol. If you're looking to learn more about these nutrients and their health effects, go to the For Nerds section of plantbaseddrjules.com.
When looking at highly inflammatory trans fat and artery blocking cholesterol, the plant-based burger came out on top, with significantly less amounts than meat. Saturated fat amounts in plant-based meats, derived from coconut oil, were quite comparable to the amounts in real meat, but sodium was where we saw some issues. Being a highly processed food, meat substitutes routinely contain significantly more sodium than meat, and this should be taken into account when making a decision on which meat substitutes to buy. Most of the excess sodium we consume is hidden in plain sight, right in the processed foods we eat everyday. I dedicated a full article to discussing how many of us are consuming way too much sodium on a daily basis. You can find it here.
Now, if you compare eating the equivalent amount of protein via whole plant foods instead of processed pea protein, which is the main one found in Beyond Meat, or soy protein isolates, found in the Impossible Burger, you would get almost zero saturated fat and sodium, but almost 20 grams of fiber. Any processed food will have some of the fiber removed, and plant-based meats are no exception to this rule. Plant-based meats have significant amount of fiber removed and lost through processing, but that still makes them better fiber sources than real meat, which contains zero grams of fiber. The photo below compares another plant-based meat substitute (left) to beef (right). Pay special attention to the micronutrient comparison.
ANIMAL PROTEIN VERSUS PLANT PROTEIN
Lots of research has compared the health effects of plant protein to animal protein. We have great data comparing health outcomes, muscle building and environmental impacts. I'll spare you the details, but you can find them here on my website! In a nutshell, studies have concluded that in term of muscle building and athletic performance, plant protein is 100% equivalent to animal protein in terms of its capacity of promoting muscle protein synthesis. In terms of athletic performance, plant protein seems to win against animal protein, likely due to its higher antioxidant content (plants contain an average of 64 times the antioxidants of meats) and anti-inflammatory potential. In terms of health outcomes, disease risks and environmental sustainability, plants win hands down.
You see, when you consume animal protein, you get more than you asked for. Animal protein comes packaged with pro-inflammatory saturated fat, cholesterol and highly oxidative heme iron. Meat then feeds bad bacteria in our gut, which produces TMAO, a very undesirable compound linked to heart disease, cancer and other chronic illnesses. Also, meat contains zero fiber, and fiber is probably the most protective nutrient in the diet. On the other hand, plant sources of protein come packed with fiber that nourishes our gut bugs, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory compounds, phytonutrients, zero cholesterol and almost no saturated fat. In terms of calorie density, animal protein has an average of 1000-2000 calories per pound of food, versus plant sources of protein which have a calorie density closer to 200-600 calories per pound of food. Lots of baggage comes with animal protein, and on top of the excess calories, cholesterol, saturated fats, antibiotics, hormones, carcinogens and lack of fiber, we must also include the devastating environmental impacts and cruel mistreatment of animals.
PLANTS FOR PLANETARY HEALTH
There is robust data showing that our modern food system is destroying our planet. Animal agriculture as a whole is a major contributor to pollution, climate change, deforestation, destruction of animal habitats, species extinction and mismanagement of the finite resources that exist on this planet, including water and land. A shift towards a more plant-centered diet has been shown to contribute significantly to a reduction of our carbon footprints. So what about plant-based meats? The production and processing of plant-based meats have been shown to significantly reduce their impact on the environment in comparison to the same amount of real meat. Both the Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger have been studied by reputable sources, showing up to 90% reductions in greenhouse gas emission, land use and water use, when compared to meat production. Similar environmental findings have been reported in studies of over 50 other types of plant-based meats. If convenience is what you're looking for, then these plant-based meats can help you out. If it's health and sustainability that you crave, then you can even go full-plant and make your own whole food burgers using soybeans, chickpeas, beans, walnuts, as well as by using many other whole plants. If this interests you, then go check out plantbaseddrjules.com and download my free recipe eBook, containing over 20 of my family's favorite plant-based meals, including a few whole food burger options!
When we ask people why they hesitate to reduce their meat consumption, the most common answer is as simple as they like the taste. So if we could make a plant-based burger look the same and taste the same, while being healthier and more sustainable for the planet, why wouldn't everyone make the switch? Let's face it, these plant-based meats are more geared towards meat eaters, since most vegetarians and vegans don't need as much convincing to cut back on meat consumption. That being said, these foods can play a role in an overall healthy dietary pattern for omnivores, flexitarians, vegans and vegetarians.
CHOOSING A PLANT-BASED MEAT SUBSTITUTE
When looking for meat substitutes, think about what your goals are. Is it cutting back on meat for the planet, or getting healthier, or eating less processed food?
If you're simply wanting to cut back on meat for your health or the health of the environment, then choose a plant-based meat that looks, tastes and cooks like real meat. Companies like Beyond Meat and others have gone to great lengths to make a meat substitute similar to real meat in the most ways possible. If you're looking to get healthier by cutting back on meat, then look for soy based meat substitutes, or substitutes like jack fruit.
If you're looking for the best way to enjoy a minimally processed burger or nuggets, then check out my free eBook, where you will find plant-based recipes that my family eats regularly. Use chickpeas to make chickpea nuggets, tofu as a replacement for scrambled eggs, or use walnuts and beans to make a super healthy whole food burger. My personal favorite is a crispy on the outside and moist on the inside oat burger. I batch cook them, freeze them and always I have some ready to go for a spontaneous pool side BBQ.
MY PLANT-BASED PRESCRIPTION
If you google plant-based meat and land on a meat promoting website, they'll argue that some plant-based meats are highly processed, contain more sodium and as much saturated fat as real beef, and I completely agree with that statement. But they'll likely avoid talking about beef's lack of fiber, heme iron content, TMAO, antibiotics and hormones. They'll most likely fail to mention that red meat has been officially classified as a class 2a carcinogen. Let's be honest, plant-based meats aren’t perfect. They contain saturated fat from coconut oil and high levels of sodium. I’d much rather you eat actual peas than processed pea protein found in some meat substitutes, but if you are going to have a burger no matter what, plant-based meat substitutes are absolutely a healthier option. They contain less trans fat, less cholesterol, less heme iron and more fiber that feeds the good bacteria in your gut instead of the TMAO producing bad bacteria that feed on animal meat. Not to mention that meat substitutes are much more sustainable for our environment. If you ask me the choose sides, it’s going to be plant-based meat substitutes every time. Although I personally eat a minimally processed and whole food plant-based diet, I do remember these foods playing an important role at the very beginning of my transition. These transitional "stepping stone" foods can be a step in the right direction, but you don't have to stop there if you want to maximize the nutrient density of the foods you eat. More plants equal more health, so use plant-based substitutes when you need them, keeping in mind that they were engineered for convenience, shelf-life, taste and sustainability, and they tick all these boxes beautifully.
Check out my website plantbaseddrjules.com and look for the “How To” section in the menu. There, you’ll find free `tips and tricks that helped me on my journey towards a plant-predominant diet. Everything there is completely free, no catches!
Look for me on the socials, @plantbased_dr_jules on Instagram and go like my Facebook Page, Plant-based Dr. Jules. If you’re looking for some fitness motivation and are curious to see what a plant-based athlete can accomplish, follow me, @maritimeninja, on my fitness account on Instagram or check out my fitness group on Facebook, called Maritime Ninja Warrior. I'm a two-time world championship qualified athlete and you can follow my fitness journey there! You can even access the resources section by becoming a member. It's free and there, you can download free resources like my plant-based recipe eBook!
You also check out my YouTube channel here for more tips and tricks on how to embark on a plant-based journey!
Thanks so much for reading!
Plant-Based Dr. Jules 💚🌱
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