Plant-based meat alternatives have been around for a very long time; indeed, tofu, a food product made from soybeans, was invented in China nearly 2000 years ago. Since then, there have been many food innovations that rely on plant proteins instead of real meat. In recent years, a new wave of plant-based meat alternatives have become widely available that offer new tastes and textures. While being made of plants has many nutritional benefits, questions remain about whether these often highly processed “fake meats” are actually healthy.
Unlike tofu, which is a gelatinous substance of varying degrees of firmness, plant-based meat is designed to specifically mimic the look, taste, and texture of animal meat products. There are many reasons why people might choose a meat substitute, even beyond being a vegan or vegetarian. Many religious and cultural practices around the world involve temporarily or permanently avoiding meat or certain types of meat. Moreover, a host of environmental, sustainability, and ethical questions may force future generations to rely more exclusively on plants.
These days, there are a wide variety of meat alternatives available at grocery stores and restaurants. In fact, Impossible Foods, the maker of the “Impossible Burger,” has even teamed up with Burger King to offer the “Impossible Whopper.” Below are some common examples of plant-based meat or protein substitutes:
A lot of plant-based vegan and vegetarian options prepared at home or at restaurants are made with whole foods and ingredients; they are often healthy and packed with nutrients, but they don’t really look or taste like meat. Popular plant-based meat alternatives like the Impossible Burger, on the other hand, are highly processed and come with preservatives, isolates, and extracts that attempt to replicate the properties of animal meat. It is also some of these ingredients added during processing that have been linked with numerous health problems and chronic diseases.
On the surface, it might seem obvious that a burger made of plants would be healthier than one made of animal products. The truth is a little more complicated, however. The Impossible Burger, for example, is a good source of fiber, calcium, and potassium; it also has no cholesterol but is high in nutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin B6, and niacin. On the flip side, Impossible Burgers are relatively high in saturated fat and sodium, and the yeast fermentation involved in the production process requires the addition of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Beyond Burgers also have a lot of positives in the ingredient list, including the amount and type of protein. Most plant proteins only have a partial set of essential amino acids, but the Beyond Burger is considered a complete protein with all nine amino acids. As good as that all is, though, the Beyond Burger also has both more sodium and more saturated fat than its ground beef burger counterpart. So even if it could be a healthy alternative to meat for some people, the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger would be unwise for people with high blood pressure, for instance.
For plant-based meats like these two innovative burgers, the question of whether they’re healthy comes down to perspective. Over recent decades, processed and red meats have been found to be linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, and certain types of cancer. So, as an alternative to red meat, something like the Impossible Burger is undoubtedly a better option. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be “healthy” enough to eat several times a week.
Of course, sometimes when people ask if a food is healthy, they’re really asking if it will help them lose weight. While veggies and fruits are clearly an important part of any weight loss plan, that doesn’t mean any plant-based food product is necessarily beneficial for weight loss. In the two meatless burger examples mentioned above, the calorie count is the same as a burger patty but it also has an additional 7-9 grams of carbohydrates. (This is also why it’s always a good idea to read ingredient lists and nutrition labels.)
Apart from highly processed meat substitutes, however, a plant-based diet can be helpful for losing weight. One of the biggest reasons for this is the fiber content of plants; foods that are high in fiber tend to be filling while also being lower in calories. So by increasing the amount of plant proteins in your diet, you can achieve a calorie deficit while still feeling full. Fiber also helps with insulin sensitivity and bowel motility by having a positive impact on the gut bacteria of the microbiome.
So, are plant-based meat alternatives actually healthy? The answer: it depends. In general, it’s wise to be wary of highly processed, mass-produced food products that claim to have health benefits. Products like the Impossible Burger do have some nutritional value, and they don’t have the potentially heart-damaging effects of red meat; but they’re also high in calories, fat, and sodium and should be eaten in moderation.
For weight loss, a healthy diet revolving around plant foods can be helpful, but the reality is that diet modification alone doesn’t really work for most people. That’s why at True You Weight Loss, we offer alternative weight loss solutions that are designed to help you keep weight off over the long term. If you’d like more information about our non-surgical weight loss procedures, please contact us today to request a consultation.