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Are plant-based alternatives better for you than real meat?

Feb 27, 2020

St. Joseph’s Hospital dietitian discusses the benefits of a plant-based diet

Thinking about switching to a plant-based diet? Or maybe starting smaller – like with meatless Mondays? Whatever your goal may be, if you want to include more plant-based foods, it’s easier than ever.

Plant-based meats can be found everywhere now. You’ve seen them on the grocery store aisles. Chains like Kroger carry their own band of plant-based meats. Even some fast-food chains will offer you an “Impossible” this or “Beyond” that.

This quick rise in popularity raises the question: Is fake meat better for you than real meat?

Andrea Manley, dietitian

That all depends on your diet goals, says Andrea Manley, registered clinical dietitian at St. Joseph’s Hospital. Manley is a life-long vegetarian and has been strictly vegan for three years.

Related Article: Is a vegetarian diet better for you?

The benefits

Plant-based foods have numerous health benefits – not to mention environmental – that make it worth giving it a try.  Research shows that people who follow a mostly plant-based diet have a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, depression and even Alzheimer’s disease.

Say your goal is to reduce red meat in your diet. That’s a good idea – research shows that the level of saturated fat in red meat and other high fatty meats raises your cholesterol and increases your risk of heart disease. While plant-based meats do contain some saturated fat, the source is typically a type of vegetable-based fats, which - in moderation - is a healthier option than butter or bacon grease, Manley says.

Plant-based meats also contain as much protein as their meat counterparts, Manley says. But unlike animal meat, they contain no cholesterol – again good for your heart – and do have fiber, which real meat does not.

Related Article: Fiber: The unsung hero in weight management, digestion and lowering cholesterol 

Plant-based meats also have plenty of iron, in the form of non-heme iron. Though our bodies absorb heme iron better, it is only found in animal products. Non-heme iron can be absorbed better with the addition of a fortifying agent, in this case Vitamin C, which is included in plant-based meat ingredients, Manley says.

“If you do eat meat every single day, I think it’s important to try to add some plant-based options into your diet,” Manley says. “I also think plant-based meats are a good option for vegetarians and vegans because of the protein.”

The cons

But, what if your goal is to lose weight? Then you want to be careful with how often you eat plant-based meats.

Plant-based meat alternatives are intended to imitate animal meat in everything from taste, texture and even color. But they also are similar to real meat in that they are high in calories and fat, Manley says.

“One thing people tend to think about with plant-based meat products is that it’s a better choice for trying to lose weight,” Manley says. “That’s not true because it’s high in calories and has the same fat and protein amounts.”

Plant-based meats also are high in sodium, even more so than animal meat. Too much sodium in your diet can lead to high blood pressure.

Related Article: Five tips for controlling your blood pressure

Enjoy in moderation

Like most foods and beverages, moderation is important, Manley says. If you want to follow a more plant-based diet, there are other options in addition to plant-based meats to eat including soy (tofu), beans and legumes. Of course, it’s important to get vegetables and fruits in at every meal, Manley adds.

Relate Article: How colorful is your diet?

So whatever your diet goal may be, Manley advises to keep moderation in mind and be sure to get a healthy balance of macronutrients – proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

“Remember moderation for the things that are unhealthy, and obviously, you should focus on getting fruit and vegetables at most meals,” Manley says. “A plant-based lifestyle is healthy; even some lean meats aren’t bad. It’s all about moderation.”

If you are thinking of making changes to your diet consider talking to a dietitian. St. Joseph’s/Candler offers outpatient dietitian services through our Wellness Center. The initial, one-hour long meeting is $68 and then $42 for each 30 minute follow-up. Make an appointment today by calling 819-8800. 

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