Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Has to Say
Plant-based meat has taken the healthy-eating world by storm. What was once a category reserved for rubbery soy-based sausage and chewy fake chicken nuggets is now a category that offers up some pretty impressive-tasting food.
But, is plant-based meat healthy, or is it simply a food trend that sounds healthy but, in reality, isn't genuinely benefiting our overall health?
What Is Plant-Based Meat?
Meat products, like beef, bacon and sausage, come from animal sources, like pigs (pork), cows (beef) and chicken. Plant-based meat, on the other hand, may look and taste like your favorite meats, but it is made from a variety of meat-free ingredients, like soy, pea, wheat gluten, pulses or even jackfruit. Additionally, plant-based meat can include added salt, artificial colors, flavors and processing aids to generate a "meat-like" sensory appeal, per a 2021 article published in Nutrients. So, plant-based bacon, meatballs and other plant-based meats will give you a similar flavor, texture and appearance as the traditional meat version, but without any animal-product content.
While a large percentage of people choose to eat plant-based meats for animal welfare or environmental reasons, many people choose these protein sources because they believe it is healthier than eating a piece of chicken, steak or other meat. Regardless of a person's motivation to eat these meat alternatives, it is clear that this trend is not going away any time soon, as plant-based meat markets have experienced substantial growth.
If you have been advised to limit your intake of processed meats, red meat or any animal-based product, plant-based meats appear to be a natural solution that allows people to enjoy their favorite foods while complying with their health recommendations. However, according to some experts, leaning on plant-based bacon, sausage and other heavily processed meat alternatives may be too good to be true and may not be the health solution we have been craving.
Health Benefits of Eating Plant-Based Proteins
Lean meat can be a healthy part of an overall diet. And according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, adults who follow a 2,000-calorie diet should aim for 26 ounce-equivalents of this food group (meat, poultry, eggs) every week if they are not following a vegetarian or vegan diet. While eating the recommended amounts of meat can help people avoid nutritional gaps and fuel their body with bioavailable protein, overeating meat on a consistent basis can set a person up for developing certain chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, per a 2018 article published in the Scientific and Technical Review.
Data published in 2018 in Public Health Nutrition shows potential benefits to eating less meat and replacing it with simple plant-based protein sources, like legumes and tofu, with evidence indicating that this simple act can decrease a person's risk of developing cardiovascular disease, diabetes and certain cancers. And although, intuitively, it seems that eating plant-based meat products would offer the same benefits when they replace meat products, some data suggests that this is not always the case.
Are Plant-Based Meat Products Healthy?
There is nothing quite like biting into a freshly made BLT sandwich or a juicy hot dog at a summertime cookout. But since eating too much meat, especially processed meat, is linked to unsavory health outcomes, it makes sense why people may want to find alternative foods that can provide them with the same satisfaction of eating these classic foods without the risks.
Because of this, plant-based bacon, sausages, hamburgers, hot dogs, meatballs and a slew of other meat-based favorites made in plant-based form have been created. And because the term "plant-based" is included in these items, many people assume that they are healthy choices, with some experts saying that animal welfare claims are interpreted as health-supporting.
According to a study published in 2021 in Nutrients, before plant-based meat alternatives were available, those who chose to eat less meat and opt for more plant-based protein choices leaned on single-ingredient foods like tofu, lentils and nuts, and the resulting dishes prepared were made with minimal oil and salt. In contrast, plant-based sausages, burgers and nuggets are more frequently fried, made with salt and "filler ingredients" that don't offer a nutritional benefit and are often consumed with low-nutrient sides and condiments. Data from the article shows that regularly including these ultra-processed plant-based meats could potentially lead to higher calorie, fat and salt intake.
In fact, according to results of the 2021 study that compared the nutrient intake of those who followed a traditional omnivore (meat-eating) diet, flexitarian/vegetarian diets that include traditional plant-based proteins like beans and nuts, and flexitarian/vegetarian diets that include plant-based meat alternatives like meatless bacon, researchers found significant differences among those who included these novel plant-based meat items.
Specifically, they found that those who consumed plant-based meats fell below the daily requirements for calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12. Plus, those eating these foods exceeded the reference values for sugar, saturated fat and sugar. This group did consume more fiber than the meat-eaters.
Unlike those following a diet replacing meat with plant-based meats, those who replaced meat with plant-based protein sources like beans, legumes and nuts met all daily micronutrient requirements.
So, while the protein intakes were similar among all diet groups, intakes of other nutrients varied, and the results didn't ultimately show that those who opted for plant-based meats saw a major health advantage.
Though there are known health benefits from reducing meat intake and eating more plant-based proteins, at this point, it is unknown whether these benefits carry over when people opt for plant-based meat alternatives.
Many newer plant-based meat products are similar in calories and protein to animal-based protein sources. However, they could potentially be lower in calcium, potassium, magnesium, zinc and vitamin B12 while being higher in sodium and fat after being prepared, making these foods not always a healthier alternative in the long run. If habitually consumed, relying on these foods could create nutrition shortfalls for consumers.
If you enjoy plant-based meat alternatives and you want to continue including them in your diet, here are some tips to consider:
- Enjoy plant-based meats as a part of a balanced diet that includes other protein sources, like legumes, nuts and seeds.
- Consider supplementation of key nutrients, like vitamin B12, if you are avoiding other protein sources.
- Opt for plant-based meat choices that are low in saturated fat and sodium.
- Eat plant-based meats with healthy foods and drinks, like whole grains and vegetables.
Plant-based meats can be a healthy part of a balanced diet if you enjoy them in the right way. Consuming plant-based meats in moderation along with fruits, veggies and other nutrient-dense foods can profoundly support your health. But only eating plant-based bacon, sausage and hot dogs as your protein source and avoiding choices like legumes, seeds, nuts and whole grains is not a path that will support the health outcomes you want to see.