Plant-based meat choices on restaurant menus and grocery store shelves continue to multiply, from Beyond Meat to the Impossible Burger, luring more consumers who are seeking a healthier alternative to the real thing.
But are these alternative meat offerings truly healthier? According to Melissa Mamele, MS, RD, a professional research assistant at the University of Colorado Anschutz Health and Wellness Center, it depends on the brand, the ingredients and a person’s nutrition and health goals.
“If your goal is to eat as much whole, traditional and natural food as possible, eating something that's a lot more processed than meat might not be aligned with your goals,” Mamele said. “But if your goal is to cut back on certain ingredients like sodium or saturated fat that comes from meat, some of these plant-based alternatives might be a good swap.”
Vegan – eats only plant-based foods and excludes all animal foods and animal products
Vegetarian – eats only plant-based foods and excludes animal flesh foods
Pescatarian – vegetarian but includes seafood
Flexitarian – eats a majority of plant-based foods, occasionally includes eggs, dairy and meat
It doesn’t have to be all or nothing
Trying plant-based options doesn’t mean a person has to go all in, either. “Plant-based just means eat more plants,” Mamele said. People who do follow the strictest plant-based diets can increase their risk of not meeting requirements for certain nutrients, such as protein, omega-3 fats, iron, B12 or calcium, she said.
“It's possible to meet these nutrient goals without taking supplements, but it usually takes additional effort and additional planning,” she said. “The more foods and food groups you restrict, the more likely you're missing something.”
Before going all in on plant-based food, Mamele recommends consulting with a healthcare provider or dietitian.
Buyer beware: Read labels
It’s also important, especially with plant-based snacks, to read the nutrition facts labels and compare ingredients, Mamele said, adding that lax regulations make it easy to label a product as plant-based. “Pretty much all chips are plant-based because plant-based food is just food that comes from plants and not animals.” People might see a plant-based label on a bag of chips and think it is a healthier choice, when it really is the same as the bag of chips without a plant-based label.
For instance, if you are interested in eating more beets and want to eat a chip version, before buying beet chips, look at the ingredients. If the first ingredient is potatoes and then beet coloring, it may not be what you are looking for, but if the first ingredient is beets, that may be a way to add different vegetables into your diet, she said.
A bounty of benefits
“There are benefits that come from eating whole plant-based foods. A lot of the research out there is saying: Eat a lot of whole plants (vegetables, fruit, nuts, seeds, beans, legumes, lentils and whole grains). They are doing a lot of really good things for us,” she said. “They give us fiber. They help with our gut health, help us stay regular, help nourish the probiotics in our body, which is our good gut bacteria, and they help keep us full.”
Eating a lot of plants is associated with a lower BMI and less of a risk of getting heart disease or type 2 diabetes, and even certain types of cancers, Mamele said. Eating plants can also help lower cholesterol and blood pressure, she said.
“You do not have to eliminate absolutely all animal or meat products to reap health benefits of eating more plant-based foods,” she said, suggesting filling a plate mostly with plant-based foods and alternating proteins. "Don't just choose one. Choose a lot of different types of proteins out there. They can both fit into a healthy eating style.”