Is plant-based meat always the healthier option?

Woman eats plant-based meat sandwich

As a registered dietitian specializing in nutrition, I tell patients that getting most of their protein from plants may lower the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer and other chronic diseases. But it may be hard to know which products to choose as more and more plant-based meat alternatives show up in our grocery stores. Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about those options.

What are some examples of plant-based meat alternatives? Does “plant-based” always mean vegan?

There are so many examples of plant-based meat alternatives. Some are made to look and taste very similarly to meat. One example is plant-based crumbles that look and taste very much like ground meat. Two popular burgers are the Beyond and Impossible brand burgers. These look and taste a lot like a ground beef burgers. There are also plant-based burgers you can buy at grocery stores or restaurants that are delicious, but don’t necessarily look or taste like beef. These might be made with beans, oats, leafy greens or other plants.

Plant-based doesn’t always mean vegan. Many foods labeled “plant-based” contain milk, eggs or other animal products. There isn’t a universal definition of plant-based. Some feel this term should only be used when describing vegan foods, but don’t assume that is the case at a restaurant or grocery store. When I use the term plant-based with patients, I’m referring to a plant-forward or plant-heavy diet. You can consume a healthy diet that contains animal products if you choose, but for good health, meat and other animal products shouldn’t be the star of the show.

What are the benefits of plant-based meat?

Animal agriculture is a growing concern for our climate. Plant-based meat alternatives are typically much more environmentally friendly than their counterparts. There are also many consumers who don’t want to eat what was once a living, sentient being, but like the taste of meat. Many of these alternatives can offer a tasty product for those consumers.

Are plant-based substitutes always a healthier option than meat?

Not necessarily. A common misconception is that a label that states “plant based” or “vegan” automatically equals healthier. A vegan doughnut is still a doughnut and should be eaten in moderation. However, some plant-based options are healthier choices. I recently purchased frozen veggie burgers that contained lentils, kale, sweet potatoes and flax. They tasted awesome and were high in fiber, protein and nutrients. This is an example of a product that, nutritionally, was a better option than meat. However, I’ve seen some vegan or plant-based options that are nutritionally worse or no better than their meat counterparts.

Why do some plant-based meat alternatives contain saturated fats? Are they “better” or “worse” that those found in meats?

Saturated fat should be consumed in moderation regardless of whether it’s found in meat or meat alternatives. Many alternatives to animal products, including alternatives to cheeses, contain coconut oil, which is a saturated fat. Again, moderation is key here.

What are some of the things to look out for when shopping for plant-based meat alternatives?

It depends on how you are planning to use these items. Are you a vegetarian and enjoy the taste of a beef hamburger occasionally? I probably wouldn’t worry too much about the nutritional value of once- in-a-while foods. Remember, it’s the big picture that counts. I teach people to eat lots of whole fruits, vegetables, whole grain, nuts and seeds for most of their diet, but it’s fine to have less healthy options from time to time. What matters most for disease prevention and health are dietary patterns over time. If you plan to make these foods a regular part of your diet, I would be mindful of the saturated fat and sodium content.

What would be examples of processed meat alternatives? Are unprocessed options better?

Technically, all these items are going to be processed. Even lentil and kale burgers don’t grow on trees and need to undergo some processing. Certainly, some are more processed than others. In general, we always want to chose more minimally processed foods for the majority of our diet. Highly processed foods often contain added salt, fat and sugar, which in high amounts can cause problems. Plus, when we fill up on highly processed foods, we leave less room for healthier options.

With options expanding, are we seeing a trend toward healthier substitutes?

Yes, I do think we are seeing that trend! I have noticed a lot more options that are low in fat and salt and still taste great!

Are there any other benefits to plant-based meats?

As a dietitian, I talk to my patients mostly about the health benefits of a plant-heavy diet. However, I think it’s important that we also make choices that benefit our environment. The good news is, choosing plants benefits our bodies and the earth.

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