Are Meat Substitutes Healthy?

some meat substitutes are tofu and beans

Veggie burgers aren’t just for vegetarians anymore.

Cruise down the refrigerated and frozen aisles of the grocery store and you’ll see all kinds of packaged meat alternatives, from standard bean-based veggie burgers to “chicken” nuggets to vegan bacon.

There’s also a new generation of faux meat products that are highly processed to mimic the look, flavor and texture of the real thing (some even “bleed” like a burger or piece of steak would).

For anyone who’s looking to pare back their meat consumption, these products can help ease the transition. But just because a product is vegetarian or vegan doesn’t necessarily mean you should think of it as health food that belongs on your plate every day, says registered dietitian Camille Skoda, RDN, LD.

Here’s her advice for picking the best meat substitutes.

A pitch for more plant-based proteins

While good-quality meat can provide your body with a plethora of different vitamins, minerals and nutrients, plant-based proteins have their own unique set of benefits, Skoda says.

“Having one meatless meal per day, or one meatless day in a weekly, can help you to diversify your diet, add fiber, and include other sources of protein,” she says.

Whole-food sources of plant protein, such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds and whole soy, provide fiber and prebiotics to help your gut stay health. They also contain sustainable carbohydrates and healthy fats that can help balance blood sugars, Skoda adds.

Studies have also linked plant-based diets with lower risk of cardiovascular disease and other health benefits.

Take a magnifying glass to the ingredients panel

While many packaged meat substitutes are made with healthy, whole-food plant proteins and ingredients, not all of them are. That’s why it’s important to flip over the box and see what’s in one before you buy it.

“Some of these products have added preservatives, sugars, inflammatory oils or other ingredients that we don’t want,” Skoda says.

Before snatching up that meatless chorizo, she recommends considering your personal dietary needs and looking at:

  • What’s the protein source? “Some meat substitutes are made with pea protein or beans, which is great,” Skoda says. “Others are made with soy protein isolate (a processed form of soy) or wheat gluten. Those are the ones you want to avoid.”
  • Does it contain simple ingredients? Some of the newer faux meat products contain hard-to-pronounce ingredients like methylcellulose (a thickener) and soy leghemoglobin (a genetically engineered protein). For the healthiest options, look for ingredient labels that contain mostly recognizable whole foods.
  • How much protein does it have? Ideally, you want to eat about 20 grams of protein per meal, Skoda recommends. “If you plan to use this product as a protein substitute, look for one that will provide you with at least 10 to 15 grams of protein, assuming that some of the other foods you’re pairing it with will also help you get to that 20 grams,” she says.
  • What is saturated fat and sodium content? While meat substitutes are usually free of cholesterol, some are higher in sodium and saturated fats than meat. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that adults consume no more than 2,300 mg/day of sodium and fewer than 10% of their daily calories from saturated fat.

Another option: go with the classics

Packaged plant-based products that imitate beef, chicken and pork may be a convenient 1:1 substitute at your next cookout, but there are plenty of other plant proteins that can be easily incorporated into your everyday diet.

Consider swapping out the meat in a recipe for:

  • Tofu: It’s made from the whole soybean (rather than an extract) and is considered a complete protein. Skoda recommends choosing one that’s non-GMO or organic and tossing it into a stir fry, or crisping it in the oven.
  • Tempeh: If you don’t like the mushy texture of tofu, Skoda recommends trying tempeh. It’s also made from whole soybeans but has the added benefit of being fermented, which may help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. It’s also generally higher in protein than tofu and provides ample amounts of calcium, iron and manganese.
  • Beans and lentils: Beans are a great source of fiber and nutrients. Toss them on top of a salad, or use them in soups and stir fries. You could also make your own bean-based veggie burger at home. “However, if you’re following a lower-carb eating plan, know that beans also contain carbohydrates,” Skoda adds.

Whether you’ve recently cut out meat from your diet or are just trying to eat less of it, plant-based proteins can help fill the void.