On Your Health

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Are Plant Based Meats Healthier than Regular Meat

Not that long ago, a new type of burger patty gained in popularity. With various names and brands such as Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, Before the Butcher and Morningstar Farms, these new burgers and ground beef products are all plant-based, meaning they aren’t made with any animal products. Plant-based meals aren’t just limited to burgers, however. These days, supermarkets everywhere offer up plant-based items ranging from milk, beef and tuna to eggs and shrimp.

For many people, plant-based meats are just as tasty as “the real thing” and proponents claim they are better for the environment and kinder to animals. On the other hand, critics are worried that plant-based foods are just as calorie-laden and unhealthy as eating animal protein.

With the recent meat shortage scare resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic many people are considering meat alternatives. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 5,000 coronavirus cases and 20 deaths occurred throughout 115 meat and poultry processing plants in April 2020. As a result, many people noted an increase in the prices consumers pay for meat at grocery stores. 

With the increased demand for plant-based meats, we looked at whether or not these meatless alternatives are healthier than regular meat.  

Is plant-based meat healthy?

When the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger were introduced in 2016, they were met with rave reviews that boasted that the plant-based burger tasted like real meat.

Instead of using filler ingredients such as rice or tofu, these plant-based food companies created a new substance using modified plant proteins, coconut oil and a molecule called "heme" that makes the burgers taste just like a normal beef patty.

However, if you look at the ingredients of many of the plant-based meat alternatives, they do not read like “whole foods.” Many include chemical compounds such as methylcellulose, soy leghemoglobin and zinc gluconate.

In addition, compared with their beef counterparts, the burgers actually add up to the same, if not higher, caloric content.

At Burger King, the meatless Impossible Whopper is 630 calories, compared to the regular Whopper which is 660. In addition, both have roughly the same amount of fat — 35 and 40 grams respectively — but the plant-based version tops the regular beef burger in sodium counts with1,240 milligrams of sodium verses 980 for the beef one.

As far as sodium, calories and fat content is concerned, the plant-based meats don’t fare much better than regular meat. That being said, however, choosing a plant-based diet over a meat-based diet can cut down your risk of heart disease, cancer and type-2 diabetes.

But, a plant-based diet doesn’t just mean switching to meatless meat. You also have to add in healthy vegetables, whole grains and fruit to your diet as well.

Is a plant-based diet or plant-based meat good for you?

When it comes to helping patients adopt healthier lifestyles, physicians recommend a diet that encourages whole, plant-based foods with limited meat, dairy, processed foods and eggs.

In fact, according to a report from the National Institutes of Health, plant-based diets are a cost-effective, low-risk way to help lower body mass index, blood pressure, HbA1C and cholesterol levels. 

The same research suggests that those who eat a plant-based diet take less medications to treat chronic diseases and have lower ischemic heart disease mortality rates. The plant-based diet is especially encouraged for those who have high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease or obesity.

While meatless meats are technically plant based, they do run the risk of having just as much fat and high sodium as a regular red meat. 

Having a plant-based option is always nice, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that plant-based means healthier. Again, one of the biggest complaints about the plant-based meats are the levels of additives, sodium, fat and calories. 

How to choose plant-based alternatives

Unless you choose not to eat meat due to a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, plant-based meats may not offer healthier options than regular meat. Choosing lean proteins such as fish or white-meat — or plant-based proteins such as nuts and beans — may be a better whole food choice.

The average diet for a healthy adult is based on eating 2,000 calories each day. If you aren’t sure if this applies to you, contact your doctor and start the conversation. 

Several eating lifestyles lend themselves to a healthier you. Heart-healthy diets include such plant-based diets as the DASH Eating Plan or the Mediterranean diet. However, if you do decide to give a plant-based meat a try, do so in moderation. One meat-alternative burger, just like an occasional hamburger, won’t derail your healthy choices, as long as you limit how often you eat these items.

Confused about your choices? Call your INTEGRIS physician today to discuss diet options and be sure to check out the nutrition and weight loss topics on the On Your Health blog. 

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Mediterranean Cooking: The Heart-Healthy Eating Plan