It’s nearly impossible to go to the grocery store these days without being bombarded by plant-based alternatives. This is in response to the increasing number of consumers who are opting for a vegetarian or a vegan lifestyle, both of which involve not eating meat. As a result, more and more companies are creating versions of meat-centric foods using plant-based ingredients.
This is exciting for those who are opting to live a plant-based lifestyle, however, it can be confusing to those who still incorporate meat into their daily diet. After all, meat can be quite nutritious and has been consumed by humans for millions of years. The trouble, however, is that Americans, on average, are consuming too much meat. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), American men eat an average of 4.8 ounces of meat each day and American women consume an average of 3.13 ounces. Both The World Cancer Research Fund and The American Institute for Cancer Research recommend limiting meat consumption to no more than 12-18 ounces (cooked) each week. If you do the math, we’re clearly overdoing it on our meat consumption.
Research has shown that eating too much meat can have consequences for your health, especially red meat, which has been linked to everything from an increased risk of type 2 diabetes to heart disease, per the World Health Organization (WHO). Research has also shown that a plant-based diet may help reduce these risks. “Plant foods are packed with disease-fighting, antioxidant-rich phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals—compounds that help to keep cells healthy and reduce inflammation which is often a precursor to chronic conditions,” says Andrea Kirkland, MS, RD, owner, and founder of Culinary Med Ed from Birmingham, Alabama. “Study after study shows that when people reduce their animal protein portions and consistently fill their plate with mostly fruit, veggies, beans, nuts, and seeds they reduce their risk of diabetes, cancers, and conditions associated with the heart, brain, and digestive system.”
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While going plant-based can certainly have its health benefits, it’s important not to get swept up in the mere idea of the dietary pattern. In fact, “plant-based meats” aren’t always a “healthier” option. For example, a veggie burger made from beans and quinoa can be a wholesome food to add to your diet; however, when you start talking about Impossible Foods and Beyond Meats, these foods are overly processed and have a lot of sodium added to them,” warns Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, FAND award-winning nutrition expert and Wall Street Journal best-selling author of Diabetes Create Your Plate Meal Prep Cookbook.
Some people opt to consume plant-based meats instead of real meats in an effort to protect the environment, but Christen Cupples Cooper, EdD, RDN, assistant professor and founding director of the Nutrition and Dietetics Program at the College of Health Professions at Pace University, points out that they still require energy in the production process plus packaging, shipping and transportation to market.
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If you do decide to shop for plant-based meats, here are some things nutrition experts want you to know.
1. They taste good
If you’re hesitant to try a plant-based meat because you’re not sure what to expect as far as taste goes, rest assured that they actually taste pretty darn good. In fact, Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD, founder of Greenletes, recommends doing a blind taste test, comparing them to meat, to see if you can even tell the difference—something she suspects you might not be able to do!
If, for some reason, you’re not a fan of a certain plant-based meat, don’t give up. “Some have beans, quinoa, or soy as a base while others use pea protein, seitan, or jackfruit,” says Laura M. Ali, RD, a culinary nutritionist based in Pittsburgh. “The flavors and texture vary widely, so if you don’t like one, try a different brand and different flavors to see if there is one you like.”
2. They aren’t always healthier than meat
Just as other plant-based foods aren’t always “healthy”—i.e. potato chips—plant-based meats aren’t always healthier either. “Some plant-based meat is made to look and taste like meat, so it contains high amounts of coconut, which has as much saturated fat as red meat,” says Rizzo.
3. They’re not always better for the environment
Plant-based meat alternatives are not necessarily better for the environment due to the processing involved, notes Melissa Joy Dobbins, MS, RDN, CDE. “When it comes to the environment, agriculture contributes approximately 11 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. (beef contributes about 2 percent) whereas transportation contributes about 27 percent, electricity production about 25 percent, Industry about 24 percent, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” she says.
4. It probably won’t help with weight loss
If you’re opting to eat plant-based meat as a strategy to help you lose weight, you might find that you come up short. “Eating plant-based meat instead of regular meat is not a good strategy for weight loss,” says Rizzo. “Many of the plant-based meats have the same nutrition profile as meat.” She recommends eating plant-based meats either because you like them or because you want to reduce your meat intake for sustainability or environmental reasons—not for weight loss.
5. Food safety precautions are still important
Plant-based meats should be handled the same way you would handle raw meat, notes Ali. “Just because they are plant-based does not mean they are safer than their animal-based counterparts,” she says. “It is important to store them in the refrigerator until you are ready to use them and to always use separate plates, cutting boards, and knives when preparing them.” Additionally, she recommends making sure you cook them thoroughly.
6. Check the ingredients list for allergens
If you have a food allergy or intolerance, be on the lookout. Kirkland recommends checking out the “contains section” below the ingredient list. “Most plant-based ‘meats’ have at least one allergen including wheat, soy, coconut, or peas (which are a legume like peanuts),” she says.