Can plant-based meats be considered a healthier alternative to real meat?
The plant-based meats movement has gained significant momentum due to increasing concerns for the environment, animal welfare and health, as well as a desire for greater food variety. Plant-based meats and dairy alternatives are frequently incorporated into regular meal rotations.
Many who do not follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet turn to plant-based meats for health reasons. Research spanning several decades has consistently shown that diets high in meat can increase risk of various diseases.
For instance, a 2021 study published in BMC Medicine analyzed data of 475,000 individuals over eight years. They found a significant association between diets high in processed and unprocessed meat, as well as poultry, and a higher risk of digestive disorders like diverticular, gallbladder disease and diabetes.
Apart from digestive disorders and diabetes, diets high in meat are also linked to an increased risk of heart disease. A 2021 meta-analysis published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that an increase of 50 grams of processed meat raises risk of coronary heart disease by 18%. Meanwhile, an increase of 50 grams of unprocessed red meat increases the risk by 9%.
Plant-based meats are similar in nutritional value
According to Kim Kulp, RDN and owner of Gut Health Connection in the San Francisco Bay Area, plant-based meats are better for animal welfare and the environment.
However, they may not necessarily be healthier than traditional meat options. Kulp explains that certain plant-based meats can contain higher levels of saturated fat and sodium compared to lean ground meat, which can elevate cholesterol level and increase risk of heart disease.
Diets high in saturated fat and sodium are associated with a greater risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that saturated fat intake should not exceed 5% of daily calories, which equates to approximately 13 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet. High sodium intake is linked to hypertension, which can lead to heart attack, stroke and heart failure. To mitigate these risks, the AHA suggests limiting sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams per day.
To address this issue, some plant-based meat manufacturers are developing alternatives that cater to individuals seeking to reduce their intake of saturated fat and sodium.
For instance, Impossible Foods recently launched Beef Lite, which has 75% less saturated fat than its original product and is comparable to a 90/10 lean meat. A four-ounce serving of Beef Lite has only one gram of saturated fat and six grams of fiber, which is insufficiently consumed by many Americans.
Nonetheless, it does contain 260 milligrams of sodium, which is higher than the amount present in regular beef.
The American Heart Association (AHA) advises individuals to reduce their meat consumption to improve their cardiovascular health, as well as to avoid digestive disorders linked to meat-heavy diets.
However, switching to vegan meats may not be the ultimate solution, as they’re similar in nutritional value to traditional meat. Plant-based meats can contain high levels of saturated fat and often have more sodium and added oils. Nonetheless, some companies are creating healthier options for those who want to limit their intake of these components. It’s essential to scrutinize food labels when selecting plant-based meats to consume, though.
Molly Snyder, RDN and owner of Full-Filled Nutrition, suggests that choosing between plant-based and traditional meats is based on an individual’s goals, whether it’s their nutritional objectives or reducing their carbon footprint.
“It comes down to personalized nutrition that factors in all foods’ frequency, health status, and goals,” she says.
Plant-based meat is a suitable option for those who avoid meat altogether, as it offers a convenient way to consume protein. However, it’s advisable to consume plant-based meats moderately. Instead, include various whole-food protein sources in diet.