The Health Pros and Cons of Plant-Based Alt Meats

A plant-based dietitian on what Beyond, Impossible, and other alt-meats bring to the table – and what to keep an eye on

Photo: Oskar Helgason / Shutterstock

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Have you started swinging through the drive-thru more frequently since fast-food chains decided to hop on board with plant-based burger options? Burger King’s Impossible Whopper or Carl’s Jr.’s meatless Beyond Meat burger may seem like enticing options after a long day — heck, even Ikea is rumored to be working on a meatless version of its famous Swedish meatballs.

And of course, it’s an encouraging sign that a plant-based lifestyle is becoming more mainstream, especially when it’s accepted in restaurants known for their beefy offerings. But could racking up too many fast-food visits mean you’re sacrificing some of the positive health benefits associated with a plant-based diet for the sake of convenience?

“Meat alternatives are taking center stage because more and more people are recognizing that taking meat off our menus is an imperative if we are to preserve the planet’s life support systems for future generations,” says Brenda Davis, R.D., a world-renowned expert in plant-based nutrition and coauthor of Nourish: The Definitive Plant-Based Nutrition Guide for Families.

Aside from being better for the planet, her coauthor, Reshma Shah, M.D., a plant-based pediatrician, notes the many health attributes with this lifestyle. “Plant-based diets have been associated with longevity, a decreased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and a healthy gut,” she explains. “Studies suggest the people eating a plant-based diet have a lower risk of being overweight or obese. Additionally, plant-based diets have been shown to be an effective strategy for treating many of the chronic diseases that make up the leading causes of death in the United States and throughout the world.”

5 Pros of Alternative Meats

First, let’s explore the benefits of adding alternative meats to your diet:

  1. Easy protein source. Some people may benefit from these concentrated, and very bioavailable protein sources. “For athletes who struggle meeting protein needs, these foods can rapidly boost protein intake,” says Davis. “Also, for seniors who have higher protein needs, and lower calorie intakes, it can be tough to meet recommended intakes. Meat alternatives can help boost protein intakes in a way that is simple and palatable for seniors.”
  2. A ‘non-threatening’ way to transition to eating less meat. New to the world of plant-based eating? Or simply trying to replace a few meat-based dishes each week? “Plant-based meat alternatives can offer convenience for busy families, provide an alternative in social situations, and make the transition to a plant-based diet more enjoyable and sustainable in the long run,” says Dr. Shah. “You may find that you rely on these foods more at the beginning of your plant-based journey. As many people become more comfortable cooking and enjoying a variety of whole, plant foods, they may end up eating these foods less often.”
  3. Cleaner fuel. “Plant-based meats are lower in persistent organic pollutants that are most concentrated in products at the top of the food chain, such as meat, fish and dairy products,” says Davis. “Also, plant-based meats cannot form heterocyclic amines, which are carcinogenic compounds formed when meat, poultry or fish are cooked at high temperatures.”
  4. Lesser inflammatory response. Plant-based meats are much lower in endotoxins (also known as lipopolysaccharides) than ground meats, which Davis says are associated with chronic inflammation and several disease states.
  5. Reduced risk of food poisoning. “Plant-based meat alternatives don’t carry the risk of foodborne disease from bacterial contamination in the same way that animal-based foods do,” says Dr. Shah.

5 Cons of Alternative Meats

There are some downsides to alternative meat consumption, too:

  1. Processed food is still processed food. While it might be tempting to skip purchasing whole ingredients and making your meals from scratch, the tradeoffs may not be worth it. “Most plant-based meat alternatives tend to be higher in calories, fat, sodium, and additives compared to whole plant foods — like beans and rice,” says Dr. Shah. “While plant-based meat alternatives are higher in fiber — animal foods contain no fiber— and are devoid of cholesterol, they certainly would not be considered a ‘health’ food when compared to a homemade burger made of black beans, quinoa, and veggies.”
  2. Budget-buster. Currently, meat alternatives are rather expensive, sometimes even more expensive than meat. As the demand increases, this may change.
  3. Quality depends on the brand. “Meat alternatives vary in their quality, but are generally fairly highly processed foods,” says Davis. “Some are made from extracted plant proteins, fats, seasonings and preservatives, while others are made from black beans and quinoa. Consumers who want minimally processed foods need to read the label.”
  4. Allergens abound. Are you sensitive to gluten, soy or nuts? Meat alternatives are often based on ingredients that are associated with common allergens, so be sure to read labels carefully to avoid a reaction.
  5. Nutrient deficient options. Davis says that meat alternatives are not always fortified with vitamin B12 or zinc, both of which are relatively high in meat. Make sure you’re getting enough of these nutrients via the rest of your diet or through supplements.

How to Shop for Alternative Meats

A simple ingredient list with recognizable foods is always a good place to start. Next, Dr. Shah says to consider the amount of fat (especially saturated fat), sodium, and other additives.

“One particular additive that has gained scrutiny is the addition of ‘heme iron’ in certain plant-based meat alternatives,” she says. “Heme-iron is added to enhance the ‘meaty’ flavor and appearance of these foods — but it’s thought to be pro-inflammatory, cause increased body iron stores, and provide an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.”

How Often Should You Consume Alternative Meats?

As with most things in life, moderation is key. “Eating plant-based meat alternatives from time to time can certainly be a part of a healthy diet, but relying on them on a regular basis — especially if they are taking the place of whole, plant foods — would not be considered health-promoting,” concludes Dr. Shah.

It’s also important to note that the consumption frequency may depend on your overall state of health. “What is safe and appropriate for one individual may be quite different for another,” explains Davis. “If you struggle with hypertension or cardiovascular disease, you will want to minimize intake of the high sodium, high-fat meat alternatives.”