It seems like every time you turn around, there’s another new fad diet popping up.
But fads come and go. Healthy eating habits don’t.
One of today’s most talked-about new food fads is imitation meats. They’re available at your grocery store and at many fast-food businesses, even restaurants.
But are they good for you?
Plant-based diets are especially popular right now, not just for health reasons but for the health of the planet.
“Even among plant-based eating patterns there are many variations,” said Holly Dykstra, registered dietitian with Corewell Health’s nutrition services. “There are vegetarian, vegan, raw and whole foods diets. Personally, I tend toward vegetarian, but that may not be the right choice for others, and that’s ok.”
Eating less meat, especially red meat, is something most dietitians can agree is a good idea.
A diet heavy in meat can increase the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, many cancers, stroke, Type 2 diabetes and obesity.
But is eating imitation meat an improvement?
“The advantage of eating meat is that it provides a lot of quality protein, and protein is a vital part of a healthy diet,” Dykstra said. “But you can get your protein from animal products or from plants.”
Plant vs. animal
Protein is important for cell repair and hormone production. It also helps build muscle, as well as providing our bodies with the nine essential amino acids we need.
“The difference is that animal protein has more protein per ounce,” Dykstra continued. “And it is easier for your body to absorb animal protein for muscle synthesis.”
It’s also easier to digest and incorporate into your tissues.
“On the other hand, plant proteins don’t have the saturated fats that animal proteins can have. Whole plant proteins also contain fiber,” she said. “Plants offer a wider variety of vitamins, antioxidants and minerals than meat.”
Dykstra recommends high-protein plants such as beans and whole grains, nuts and seeds, lentils, nut butters and tofu.
The high fiber content of many plants helps keep hunger and blood sugar in check and helps food move through the digestive system with regularity.
Imitation meat products such as the Beyond Burger and the Impossible Burger have been popping up on menus and in grocery aisles.
These new mock meats have become so realistic with advanced food technology that some will even bleed like a rare burger, with something like beet juice added for this effect.
“I don’t want to demonize these imitation meats,” Dykstra began. “But they are not necessarily better for your health.”
Those mimic meats can resemble the flavor and texture of beef, and there’s evidence they may be less harmful on the environment because of how they’re produced.
“That’s their biggest benefit,” she said. “But you have to take a look at all of the ingredients. Imitation meats may have lots of oils, fillers, and sodium that you may not want.”
A big part of healthy eating habits is to avoid processed foods.
The more it’s processed, the fewer nutrients it will offer.
“Because imitation meats are often highly processed,” Dykstra said. “They can sometimes contain a lot of saturated fats in the form of oils. They may not offer any difference in the nutrition profile versus regular meats.”
A better alternative: Choose a burger made from beans and legumes or mushrooms, rather than a processed imitation meat.
“If you are cutting back on meat, yes, the imitation meats can be more convenient,” Dykstra said.
You can toss the frozen crumbles of these imitation meats into soups or stews, or shape them into patties that can cut down on cooking time.
“But consider what’s on the rest of your plate if health is your goal,” she said. “One food won’t make a difference long-term. So pay attention to how your plate looks at each meal, each week. It’s the overall pattern that is more important for overall health.”
Eating fewer animal products and more plant-based proteins is associated with increased longevity and decreased morbidity.
With that in mind, if you can’t resist that burger, choose a whole food version first, Dykstra said.
Go with the bean burger.