Is plant-based meat healthy? What a dietitian has to say

Plant-based meat has taken the healthy eating world by storm. What was once a category reserved for rubbery soy-based sausage and chewy fake chicken nuggets is now a category that offers some pretty impressive-tasting food.

But is plant-based meat healthy? Or is it just a food trend sounds healthy when in reality it doesn’t really benefit our overall health?

What is plant-based meat?

Meat products, such as beef, bacon and sausage, come from animal sources, such as pigs (pork), cows (beef) and chickens. Plant-based meat, on the other hand, may look and taste like your favorite meat, but is made from a variety of meat-free ingredients, such as soy, pea, wheat gluten, legumes or even jackfruit.

Plant-based meats may also contain added salt, artificial coloring, flavoring and processing aids to generate a “meat-like” sensory appeal, according to a 2021 article published in Nutrients. So plant-based bacon, meatballs and other plant-based meats give you a similar taste, texture and appearance as the traditional meat version, but without any animal products.

According to a 2022 article in Nutrients, a large percentage of people choose to eat plant-based meat for animal welfare or environmental reasons. However, others choose these protein sources because they think it is healthier than eating a piece of chicken, steak or other meat. Regardless of a person’s motivation for eating these meat alternatives, it is clear that this trend is not going away anytime soon as the plant-based meat markets have experienced substantial growth.

If you’ve been advised to limit your intake of processed meat, red meat, or any other animal product, plant-based meat seems like a natural solution that allows people to enjoy their favorite foods while adhering to their health recommendations. However, according to some experts, leaning on plant-based bacon, sausage and other heavily processed meat alternatives may be too good to be true and may not be the health solution we’ve been craving.

Health benefits of eating plant-based proteins

Lean meat can be a healthy part of an overall diet. And according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, adults following a 2,000-calorie diet should aim for 26 ounce equivalents of this food group (meat, poultry, eggs) each week if they are not following a vegetarian or vegan diet. . While eating recommended amounts of meat can help people avoid nutritional deficiencies and provide their bodies with bioavailable protein, consistently eating too much meat can predispose a person to develop certain chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes , according to a 2024 article published in Preventive nutrition and nutritional sciences.

A review published in 2023 in Advances in food and nutrition research shows potential benefits of eating less meat and replacing it with simple plant-based protein sources, such as legumes and tofu. For example, this review cites evidence that replacing 3% of daily energy intake from processed red meat with plant sources could reduce the risk of all-cause mortality by 12%. There is also some evidence that this simple act can reduce a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers.

While it appears that eating ultra-processed plant-based meat products would provide the same benefits as replacing meat products, some data suggests that this is not always the case.

Are plant-based meat products healthy?

There’s nothing like biting into a freshly made BLT sandwich or a juicy hot dog at a summer barbecue. But since eating too much meat, especially processed meat, is linked to unpalatable health outcomes, it makes sense that people would want to find alternative foods that can give them the same satisfaction as eating these classic foods, but without the risks.

This has created plant-based bacon, sausage, burgers, hot dogs, meatballs, and a whole host of other meat-based favorites made in plant-based form. And because the term “plant-based” is included in these articles, many people assume these are healthy choices. Some experts say animal welfare claims are interpreted as supportive of health, according to a 2020 study in Foods.

According to a study published in 2021 in NutrientsBefore plant-based meat alternatives were available, those who chose to eat less meat and opt for more plant-based protein choices leaned on single-ingredient foods such as tofu, lentils and nuts, and the resulting dishes were prepared with minimal oil and salt. Plant-based sausages, burgers and nuggets, on the other hand, are more often fried, made with salt and “filler ingredients” that provide no nutritional benefit and are often consumed with side dishes and condiments that are low in nutrients. Data from the article shows that regularly consuming this ultra-processed plant-based meat could potentially lead to higher calorie, fat, and salt intake.

According to the results of the 2021 study that compared the nutrient intakes of those who followed a traditional omnivorous (meat-eating) diet, a flexitarian/vegetarian diet that includes traditional plant-based proteins such as beans and nuts, and a flexitarian/vegetarian diet. that included plant-based meat alternatives, such as meatless bacon, researchers found significant differences between those who consumed these plant-based meat products.

Specifically, they found that those who consumed plant-based meat fell below daily requirements for calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12. In addition, those who ate these foods exceeded the reference values ​​for sugar, saturated fat and sugar. This group did consume more fiber than the meat eaters.

Unlike those who followed a diet that replaced meat with plant-based meat, those who replaced meat with plant-based protein sources such as legumes, nuts and soybeans met all daily micronutrient requirements.

So while protein intake was similar among all diet groups, intake of other nutrients varied, and the results ultimately did not show that those who opted for plant-based meats saw a major health benefit.

While there are known health benefits from reducing meat intake and eating more plant-based proteins, it is currently unknown whether these benefits will materialize when people choose plant-based meat alternatives.

Many newer plant-based meat products are comparable to animal protein sources in calories and protein. But once prepared, they may contain lower levels of calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12 and higher levels of sodium and fat. This means that these foods are not always a healthier alternative in the long run. If consumed habitually, reliance on these foods can cause nutritional deficiencies for the consumer.

If you like plant-based meat alternatives and want to continue incorporating them into your diet, here are some tips to consider:

  1. Enjoy plant-based meats as part of a balanced diet that also includes other protein sources such as legumes, nuts and seeds.
  2. Consider supplementing with key nutrients like vitamin B12 if you’re avoiding other protein sources.
  3. Choose plant-based meat choices that are low in saturated fat and sodium.
  4. Eat plant-based meats with healthy foods and drinks, such as whole grains and vegetables.

It comes down to

Plant-based meats can be a healthy part of a balanced diet when enjoyed properly. Consuming plant-based meats in moderation, along with fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods, can profoundly support your health. But just eating plant-based bacon, sausage, and hot dogs as a protein source and avoiding choices like legumes, seeds, nuts, and whole grains is not a path that supports the health results you want to see.

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