When Should I Worry About...

Is Plant-Based Meat Any Healthier Than Beef?

Jan. 25, 2022 - Katie McCallum

Whether browsing the grocery store or scanning a restaurant menu, chances are you've run across a plant-based meat option by now.

Many look remarkably similar to real meat, and some even claim to taste exactly like it, too.

"People are choosing plant-based meat more often these days for a variety of reasons, including ethical ones — such as animal welfare or environmental sustainability — as well as nutritional ones," says Angela Snyder, a wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist.

As Snyder puts it, most people realize that a bacon double cheeseburger isn't the best for our health. Could a plant-based version of both the burger patty and bacon be a potentially healthier option?

What is plant-based meat?

Using plants in the place of meat isn't a new concept. Ever had a portobello mushroom burger?

The term "plant-based meat" is fairly new, though. It's come to represent an entirely new class of food that's probably best described as imitation meat. From burgers to meatballs and steak to sausages, plant-based meat comes in the usual shapes and sizes you're used to seeing when you think of regular meat. It's just ... not meat.

There are several different options available, each made slightly differently. Beyond Beef and Impossible Foods are probably the most popular brands.

"The overall idea, though, is that plant-based meat is made without animal products, relying on plant proteins and fats instead," Snyder explains.

Plant-based meat ingredients include:

  • Soybeans
  • Peas
  • Potatoes
  • Lentils

But that's not all you'll find in plant-based meat, Snyder notes. If you've ever tried to make your own veggie burgers at home, you already know that they require some interesting co-ingredients.

"The manufacturers are trying to take soy and potato and form it into a burger or meatball," Snyder adds. "Accomplishing this tends to require additives and results in a long list of ingredients."

This means that these pre-made meat alternatives tend to be highly processed.

Is plant-based meat healthy?

It's a tricky question.

"When we look at population studies, we see the Mediterranean diet as being the most helpful for maintaining healthy eating patterns long-term," says Snyder. "It's a diet that consists of very little red meat and, instead, includes mostly plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes."

So far, so good for the health merits of choosing plants over meat.

"The benefit of plant-based meat options, specifically, is that they don't contain animal products, but they still look like meat," says Snyder. "They're mostly marketed to vegetarians and flexitarians who are eating a plant-based diet but still want some kind of animal-tasting product."

That being said, the "I can't believe it's not meat" options represent only a small subsection of the full range of plant proteins that can comprise a plant-based diet. And while "meat" made from plants has its advantages, it has disadvantages, too.

"The drawback, however, is that they're highly processed, containing additives, high amounts of salt and added saturated fat," says Snyder. "And these aren't necessarily things we have to worry about with unprocessed plant proteins."

But plant-based meat is still healthier than beef, right?

Finally, the question we really need answered. It's likely why most of us are even considering eating a burger made of pea protein anyways.

Snyder's answer: Yes and no.

"There's research to suggest that the saturated fat content of red meat may increase a person's risk of heart disease," explains Snyder. "But there are also the drawbacks of these plant-based substitutes to consider. Whereas beef typically doesn't contain additives and has a very low amount of natural sodium, plant-based meat is highly processed and can be full of salt."

When consumed in excess, salt can damage your blood vessels over time, leading to high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Plus, when compared side-by-side, plant-based meat and beef have relatively comparable amounts of total calories and saturated fat.

"Plant-based meats are made with coconut oil or cocoa butter instead of animal fats, but even these plant fats are still saturated fats at the end of the day," adds Snyder. "And research is still unclear on whether they are in fact healthier than the saturated fats found in animal meat."

Given all of this, Snyder doesn't necessarily encourage eating a plant-based burger over a beef one.

Still, she appreciates the desire to eat more plants and less beef — she just recommends approaching the matter with a different mindset.

Eating plant-based meat isn't the only way to go meatless

"There's a whole world of plant-based proteins out there that you can use to help incorporate plants as your primary protein source," says Snyder. "The benefit of approaching a plant-based diet in this way, rather than through plant-based meat, is that plant proteins are less processed and don't have added saturated fat and salt."

Instead of fake meat, consider adding the following plant proteins into your diet:

  • Tofu
  • Tempeh
  • Lentils
  • Beans

"I'm a huge believer in opting for a plant-based diet, a flexitarian diet or just trying to go meatless once a week, but I recommend doing so by choosing unprocessed plant proteins over plant-based meats as often as you can," Snyder says. "I don't think a fake burger or fake bacon is the best way to reap the full benefit of eating a plant-based diet."

Put another way, if you're interested in trying out Meatless Mondays, a pre-made veggie burger isn't the first item Snyder would recommend you buy.

"For instance, I'd recommend something like a lentil chili instead," says Snyder.

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