How healthy is vegan meat?
- March 16, 2023
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Veganuary is far behind us, but it’s never too late to embrace a vegan diet. With so many vegan meat alternatives available today, it’s actually easier than ever. From Impossible and Beyond Meat burgers to Gardein Chick’n and Tofurky, plant-based meat is everywhere.
It’s not just in the supermarket. With a growing number of plant-based meal delivery services and vegan options at dine-in and fast-food restaurants, going vegan is getting easier every day.
All of that said, there’s one big question about vegan meat that a lot of people are just starting to ask: is it healthy?
What is plant-based meat made of?
Of course, that depends on the meat alternative. Some plant-based meat options are nutrient dense and consist mostly of minimally processed whole foods. But many of the most popular options on the market — and especially those that look and taste like real meat — aren’t great for you.
In general, vegan meat consists mainly of the following ingredients:
SoylegumesVegetables like peas or broccoliFruits like jackfruit
That all sounds good, doesn’t it? So why are we debating unhealthy plant-based meats? It’s about what happens to those basic ingredients.
To make things look and taste like meat, food manufacturers add fillers like wheat gluten, lots of salt, and artificial colors. In other words, if you choose a meat alternative that seems pretty darn similar to real meat, it’s probably because that “meat” has been heavily processed.
That’s not to say that all vegan meat options are just as bad for your health as processed meat. But yes, this vegan hot dog is probably just as unhealthy as a regular hot dog.
Plant-based meat can certainly do a lot to relieve the environment, support animal welfare and save money. But if you’re making the switch for health reasons, you should be conscientious about which meat alternative you choose.
Health concerns about vegan meat
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Let’s list some of the biggest risks associated with unhealthy plant-based meats.
As we mentioned earlier, taking something that isn’t meat and making it taste and look like real meat requires quite a bit of processing. Foods are more processed when they contain artificial ingredients or “natural flavors.” Specifically for meat substitutes, ingredients such as soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, and textured vegetable protein are processed ingredients.
That’s bad news, because highly processed foods increase your risk of:
ObesityDementiaHigh Blood PressureType 2 DiabetesReduced Life Expectancy
Missing key nutrients
Beef, pork, and poultry provide your body with a complete protein, meaning they contain all nine amino acids you need but can’t make yourself.
Many plant-based meats come from ingredients that aren’t complete proteins themselves, like legumes and vegetables. If you choose vegan meat, find out what nutrients it doesn’t have so you can supplement them. You should also know about plant-based protein options like quinoa, tofu, and tempeh.
Most adults should consume 0.8 grams of protein for every pound you weigh, plus more if you’re active. The US Department of Agriculture has a handy calculator to work out how much you should be getting.
Some vegan meats contain less protein than real meat, although this has gotten better in recent years. To maintain a complete, healthy diet, you’ll likely want to supplement with vegan high-protein foods like legumes and nuts.
High in sodium and saturated fats
One of the biggest problems with plant-based meat is its sodium content. Just like processed animal meat, most vegan meat contains a fair amount of salt. Most of the sodium in our diet comes from processed foods. Read the label and especially check the sodium content before assuming a meat alternative is a healthy substitute.
This is especially true if you have high blood pressure or other heart problems.
Meat alternatives also often contain saturated fats due to the type of oils used, particularly coconut oil. Saturated fats are unhealthy fats that can increase your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol.
Many vegan meat alternatives that are highly processed are not good for you. However, not all meat substitutes are unhealthy. If you know how to read labels and choose healthier, plant-based meat options, you’ll be able to find vegan meats made with organic, whole-food ingredients that are lower in sodium and higher in fiber and iron.
Eating a plant-based diet can be incredibly healthy—plus cheaper, and more environmentally and animal-friendly—as long as you stick to whole foods. Equipping your kitchen with the right tools to prepare nutritious meals with minimally processed ingredients can make you feel better. Homemade vegan meat made from vegetables and legumes is ideal, but tofu, tempeh, and seitan are less processed, high-protein meat alternatives.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions about a medical condition or health goals.