The health benefits of plant-based meats

The health benefits of plant-based meats

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 are better for the environment and animals too, which is why many people find good reasons to go vegan or vegetarian.

It wasn’t many years ago that going vegan almost unequivocally meant that your diet would instantly become healthier, as there were so few processed vegan foods, meaning that vegans would really only have the most nutritious whole foods to choose from. The vegan diet was made up almost entirely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, leading to a higher-quality diet and even greater health benefits.

Person pouring salsa into vegetable tacos.

However, as the popularity of vegan diets and plant-based diets increased, food manufacturers responded with many options of plant-based meats or vegan meat alternatives to replace the carnivores. These days, there are plant-based meats for just about every type of animal protein, from vegan burgers to vegetarian dogs, vegan chicken nuggets, and shredded tacos. There are even vegan roasts, vegan bacon, vegan hot dogs, and all kinds of vegan wings and ribs flavored with glazes and sauces that mimic anything you can get with chicken, pork, or beef. But are plant-based meats really healthy? Does eating vegan alternatives to meat make the vegan diet no longer beneficial for health? Are plant-based meats healthier than normal animal meats? Read on to find out.

What are plant-based meats?

Very Good Butcher sausage package on a white background.

Plant-based meats refer to food products that mimic animal-based meat products, but are made from soybeans or other legumes, wheat, yeasts, or other plants. They can also be referred to as “fake” meats, “meat alternatives” or “vegan meats”. Plant-based meats are vegan or vegetarian alternatives to animal meat and animal meats such as hamburgers, chicken, sausages, pepperoni, ham, bacon, sausage, ribs, wings, chicken nuggets, cold cuts, tuna, shrimp, salmon, turkey , and roasts.

Are plant-based meats vegan?

All plant-based meats are vegetarian, but not necessarily vegan. Some include eggs or dairy, so if you’re on a vegan diet, be sure to check the label for the full ingredient list. Honey BBQ flavored chicken fillets or chicken nuggets may also contain genuine honey.

What are plant-based meats made with?

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 a lot of inherent flavor. Therefore, if you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, it is imperative that you read the label of a plant-based meat product for possible allergens.

Besides soy and gluten, other common ingredients in plant-based meats include other legumes like peas and protein from peas, lentils, and beans; potato starch, eggs, nuts and seeds, mushrooms and vegetables.

Health benefits of plant-based meats

There is a wide variety of nutritional information and ingredients on plant-based meats available these days. However, in general, the health benefits of avoiding animal products in favor of plant foods include the following:

  • Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Decrease inflammation
  • Reduce the risk of cancer.
  • Improve the health and digestion of the gut microbiome
  • Increased bowel regularity
  • Improve weight control and support weight loss.
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Reduce blood pressure and the risk of hypertension.
  • Improving blood sugar control
  • Reduce your intake of saturated fat

Disadvantages of plant-based meats

The Beyond Sausage nutrition label on a white background.

Most plant-based meats use a vegan or vegetarian protein source so that consumers continue to get the protein benefits normally associated with real meat. However, the total protein may still be lower in plant-based meat, and they generally contain more carbohydrates compared to animal meat. In addition, plant-based meats do not naturally contain vitamin B12, a fundamental nutrient for energy production. Many vegan meats are fortified with vitamin B12, but this is something to keep in mind when assessing your nutrient needs. Iron and zinc are also typically lower, although some better plant-based meats are also fortified with these essential nutrients.

Lastly, some plant-based meats are high in sodium, which is often the main point made by those who think plant-based meats are unhealthy. For example, a 2019 Australian study that audited plant-based meats, including 50 hamburgers, 10 minced products, 29 hot dogs, 24 chicken products, 9 seafood and 15 other meat substitutes, reported that only 4% of the products were low in sodium (58 –1200 mg / 100 g). However, it is important to note that most comparable animal meat products also contain a similar level of sodium.

Are plant-based meats healthy?

Vegetable burger wrapped in paper.

So given the pros and cons, are plant-based meats healthy? There is no clear answer because there are many different types of plant-based meats and formulas that are used to make them. Some include very few ingredients and are minimally processed. They use organic soybeans with other vegetables and are rich in quality protein and contain some fiber. Vegan meats made with protein from peas 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 sweet and sticky sauces and condiments can contain unhealthy levels of sodium, sugar, and processed fats and oils, just like their processed meat counterparts.

Choosing healthy plant-based meats

Reading the ingredient label and nutrition information will help you inform your consumption of plant-based meats. The recommended daily limit for sodium is 2,300 mg, so look for plant-based meats that provide no more than 20% of the daily value for sodium per serving. Also, look for low saturated fat and a short ingredient list with real food ingredients like organic soybeans, peas, vital wheat gluten (if you are not celiac), seeds, and vegetables. Fiber, protein, and vitamin B12 should be high, if possible. For example, try to consume at least 3-5 grams of fiber per serving, 9 or more grams of protein, and 20% of the daily value for vitamin B12, unless you are already taking a supplement. Avoid added sugars, hydrogenated oils, and artificial ingredients if possible.

Alternatives to plant-based meats

Plate of lentils on a kitchen table surrounded by other foods.

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, choose whole natural vegan protein sources. it will be a healthier option. Organic, non-GMO lentils, tofu and tempeh, beans, peas, vegetables, nuts and seeds will offer higher quality protein without additives like sodium and preservatives.

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