With the growing popularity of plant based diets, I have received a lot of questions about whether or not meat substitutes (such as meatless burgers, bacon, sausages, chicken etc) are healthy options or not.
My initial thought is that it depends on the context of someone’s overall dietary history. Are meatless products dominating the diet and crowding out other, less processed foods? If so, then I could foresee it being an issue.
1. LACK OF VITAMIN B12. This is a common deficiency amongst individuals who do not consume animal protein because it’s only found in foods of animal origin. Foods commonly used in meat substitutes like beans, soy, peas, whole grains and so on are not sources of B12.
2. LOADS OF SODIUM AND SATURATED FAT. Because meatless products are so heavily processed they’re usually loaded with sodium. This gets compounded by any additional marinade, sauce, or condiment you use. Some meatless subs have upwards of 700mg of sodium a serving. And when it comes to fat, you’d be shocked at how fatty meatless products can be. Impossible Burger (for example) has 14g of fat per patty and Beyond Burger has 20. This is because manufacturers use fats like palm and coconut oil to try to give their product the same “mouthfeel” as a burger.
3. ALLERGENIC INGREDIENTS. Many people adopt a plant based diet only to find they feel WORSE, not better. This is because plant based diets, and meatless products in particular are dense in common food allergies like corn, wheat, soy and free nuts. Many individuals also react negatively to additives like artificial colors, flavors, gums, stabilizers, added sugars etc.
4. HIGHLY PROCESSED. A processed food is a processed food. Being plant based doesn’t make it any healthier. Granted some meatless products are minimally processed but many have laundry lists of ingredients that even I can’t navigate. If you want to keep your diet as minimally processed as possible (and you should) look for short ingredient lists predominantly comprised of quinoa, potato or sweet potato, beans, lentils, tempeh, and tofu, and that use herbs and spices for flavor. Manufacturers are in this to make money so often meat substitutes contain cheap fillers and binders which have no nutritive value. Look for as many WHOLE plant foods as possible when you read labels.
Ultimately its all about balance. I believe that any dietary approach should be one that relies MINIMALLY on processed foods, whether plant or animal based. When in doubt- learn to make your own! Homemade Tempeh bacon can be a great substitute for “tofurkey” and meatless burgers made from beans and veggies are insanely easy to make and can even be frozen for future use.