A vegan or vegetarian diet is associated with numerous health benefits, such as reducing the risk of certain cancers and heart disease and supporting weight loss. Plant-based diets also are better for the environment and animals, so many people find worthy reasons to go vegan or vegetarian.
It wasn’t that many years ago that going vegan almost unequivocally meant your diet was going to instantly become healthier, as there were very few processed vegan foods, meaning that vegans would really only have the most nutritious, whole foods to choose from. The vegan diet was composed nearly entirely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, which led to superior diet quality and even greater health benefits.
However, as the popularity of vegan diets and plant-based eating rose, food manufacturers responded with many options for plant-based meats, or vegan meat alternatives to substitute for carnivorous counterparts. These days, there are plant-based meats for nearly every type of animal protein, from vegan burgers to veggie dogs, vegan chicken nuggets to taco crumbles. There are even vegan roasts, vegan bacon, vegan sausages, and all sorts of flavored vegan wings and ribs with glazes and sauces that mimic anything you could get on chicken, pork, or beef. But, are plant-based meats actually healthy? Does eating vegan meat alternatives make the vegan diet no longer beneficial for your health? Are plant-based meats healthier than regular animal meats? Keep reading to find out.
Plant-based meats refer to food products that mimic animal meat products but are made from soy or other legumes, wheat, yeasts, or other plants. They may also be called “fake” meats, “meat alternatives,” or “vegan meats.” Plant-based meats are vegan or vegetarian alternatives to animal flesh and animal meats such as burgers, chicken, sausage, pepperoni, ham, bacon, hot dogs, ribs, wings, chicken nuggets, cold cuts, tuna, shrimp, salmon, turkey, and roasts.
All plant-based meats are vegetarian, but not necessarily vegan. Some include eggs or dairy, so if you’re following a vegan diet, be sure to check the label for the full list of ingredients. Honey-barbecue flavored chicken tenders or chicken nuggets may also contain genuine honey.
Most plant-based meats are made from soy and/or wheat gluten, as both are high in protein and can be used to create a meat-like texture without imparting much inherent flavor. Therefore, if you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, it’s imperative that you read the label on a plant-based meat product for potential allergens.
In addition to soy and gluten, other common ingredients in plant-based meats include other legumes like peas and pea protein, lentils, and beans; potato starch, eggs, nuts and seeds, mushrooms, and vegetables.
There is quite a range in nutrition facts and ingredients in available plant-based meats these days. However, in general, the health benefits of avoiding animal products in favor of plant foods include the following:
Most plant-based meats use a vegan or vegetarian source of protein so that consumers are still getting the protein benefits that would normally be associated with real meat. However, total protein may still be less in plant-based meat and they usually contain more carbohydrates relative to animal meat. Additionally, plant-based meats do not naturally contain vitamin B12, a nutrient critical for energy production. Quite a few vegan meats are fortified with vitamin B12, but this is something to look into when assessing your nutrient needs. Iron and zinc are also typically lower, though some better plant-based meats are also fortified with these essential nutrients.
Finally, some plant-based meats are high in sodium, which is typically the primary point argued by those who think plant-based meats are unhealthy. For example, a 2019 Australian study that audited plant-based meats including 50 burgers, 10 mince products, 29 sausages, 24 chicken products, 9 seafood products, and 15 other meat substitutes reported that only 4% of products were low in sodium (58–1200 mg/100 g). However, it is important to keep in mind that most comparable animal meat products would also contain a similar sodium level.
So, given the pros and cons, are plant-based meats healthy? There isn’t a clear-cut answer because there are lots of different types of plant-based meats and formulations used to make them. Some include very few ingredients and are minimally processed. They use organic soy with other vegetables and are rich in quality protein and contain some fiber. Vegan meats made with pea protein and other legumes are also rich in protein, fiber, complex carbohydrates, and antioxidants.
However, plant-based meats that are high in salt or that incorporate sticky and sweet sauces and seasonings can contain unhealthy levels of sodium, sugar, and processed fats and oils, much like their processed meat counterparts.
Reading the ingredients label and nutrition facts will help you inform your consumption of plant-based meats. The recommended daily limit of sodium is 2,300 mg, so look for plant-based meats that provide no more than 20% of the DV of sodium per serving. Also, look for low saturated fat and a short ingredients list with real food ingredients like organic soy, peas, vital wheat gluten (if you don’t have celiac), seeds, and vegetables. Fiber, protein, and vitamin B12 should be high, if possible. For example, aim for at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, 9 or more grams of protein, and 20% DV of vitamin B12 unless you already take a supplement. Avoid added sugars, hydrogenated oils, and artificial ingredients if at all possible.
Ultimately, plant-based meats are considered processed foods, so while they can be part of a healthy diet if you choose the most nutritious and least processed options and enjoy them in moderation, choosing whole, natural vegan protein sources will be a healthier option. Lentils, organic, non-GMO tofu and tempeh, beans, peas, vegetables, nuts, and seeds will offer higher-quality protein without additives like sodium and preservatives.
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