The evidence is so strong that eating meats from mammals and processed meats can increase heart attack risk that more than 40 percent of North Americans are trying to reduce their consumption of meat and increase their intake of plant-based foods. But people love the taste and feel of hamburgers and other favorite meats, so the plant-based imitation “meats” such as “Impossible Burger” and “Beyond Meat” continue to gain popularity. We still do not have enough data to know if these plant-based imitations are more healthful than eating meat from animals, but studies that have come in so far look favorable.
A recent review of 12 studies found that replacement of meat with plant-based foods significantly lowers heart attack risk factors such as total cholesterol, the bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (Dietetics, Mar 8, 2023;2(1):104-122). Another benefit from eating foods made from plants comes from the soluble fiber they contain, which is converted by bacteria in your colon to short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) that help to reduce high blood sugar, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. However, even if plant-based “meats” are found in the future to be more healthful than the animal products they imitate, I think it will be silly to seek them out if you are not paying attention to your entire diet. It would be absurd to get a plant “burger” in a fast-food restaurant with a sugar-sweetened soda, French fries and a sugary dessert.
Studies on Plant-Based “Meats”
• Adults ate either animal meats or plant-based meats for eight weeks, and then switched diets for another eight weeks (Am J Clin Nutr, Aug 11, 2021;112(5):1188–1199). When they ate plant-based meats, they had much lower levels of TMAO, a metabolite from meat that is associated with increased risk for certain cancers and heart attacks. They also had lower levels of LDL cholesterol (associated with increased risk for heart attacks), and lost weight.
• An analysis of 137 plant-based meat substitutes found that these products often have higher levels of sugar, but they do contain some fiber (animal products have none) and lower levels of calories (Nutrients, Oct 30, 2019;11(11):2603).
• Another study compared components in 37 plant-based meats with animal meats and found that the plant-based meat alternatives had more fiber, folate, B12, and manganese, but were higher in sodium. Some of the plant-based products were higher in saturated fats (J Acad of Nutr and Diet, June 3, 2021), but the saturated fat came from coconut oil, and so far the question of possible harm from saturated fat from plants has not been settled. An Impossible Burger has eight grams of saturated fat, mostly from coconut oil, while an average restaurant lean beef burger has six grams of saturated fat from the beef. The American Heart Association still recommends restricting saturated fat to less than 5-6 percent of your total daily calories, even though this is somewhat controversial. See The Saturated Fat Debate.
• A comparison of the composition of plant-based meat products with meat from grass-fed animals found large differences in amino acids, dipeptides, vitamins, phenols, tocopherols, and fatty acids. This study suggests that the difference between plant-based meat substitutes and meat might result in different immune responses that are associated with cancer and heart attack risks, but the researchers concluded that, “It cannot be determined from our data if either source is healthier to consume.” (Scientific Reports, July 5, 2021;11(13828)).
Are Plant-Based “Chicken” Products More Beneficial?
Chicken meat appears to be safer than mammal meat, possibly because it contains less saturated fat, but the scientific literature is divided on whether or not you should restrict chicken. Plant-based chicken substitutes are now appearing at McDonald’s and other outlets, but they may not be an improvement over real chicken. The plant-based nuggets have the same amount of saturated fats and salt as regular chicken nuggets. So far these “chicken” nuggets have the highest fat content of the plant-based meat choices.
Plant Sources of Protein
The protein content of the plant-based meat products is close to that found in the animal products, and lack of dietary protein is not a significant problem for most North Americans. Vegetarians can meet their needs for protein without animal products (Nutrients, Dec 2020;12(12):3704). Good sources of protein include all dried beans and other legumes (lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, soy products), and all nuts and other seeds.
All of the meat alternatives can provide variety, but at most they should be a small part of a healthful plant-based diet. They are highly processed foods, and eating a lot of processed components of plants (instead of whole plant parts such as vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts or fruits) has been associated with obesity (Cell Metabolism, May 16, 2019). See Are Processed Foods Making Us Fatter and Ultra-Processed Foods. My guidelines for healthful eating include:
• eat lots of fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts and other seeds
• restrict or avoid mammal meat, processed meats, fried foods, sugar-added foods, and all drinks with sugar in them including fruit juices
• maintain a healthful weight and try to get some exercise every day.