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Are Plant-Based Meats Really Healthier Than the Real Thing? We Asked Experts.

March 18, 2023

While only 10% of the population identifies as vegan or vegetarian, the plant-based movement is as big as it’s ever been. With growing concerns for the environment, animal welfare, and health, and for more variety in food choices, many people are including plant-based meats and dairy alternatives in their regular meal rotations.

There’s no question that many people turn to plant-based meats to improve their health, even if they don’t follow a strict vegetarian or vegan diet. For decades, research has found that diets high in meat could increase the risk of various diseases. A 2021 study in BMC Medicine collected data from 475,000 men and women over eight years and found that diets high in processed and unprocessed meat, as well as poultry, are significantly associated with a higher risk of several digestive disorders like diverticular and gallbladder disease, and diabetes.

Beyond digestive disorders and diabetes, diets high in meat can also increase the risk of heart disease. A 2021 meta-analysis in Critical reviews in Food Science and Nutrition found that every 50-gram increase in processed meat increases the risk of coronary heart disease by 18%, while every 50-gram increase in unprocessed red meat increased the risk by 9%.

With all the dangers associated with meat-heavy diets, plant-based meats seem to be the next best thing. But in terms of nutrition, are they actually healthier?

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Nutritionally, plant-based meats aren’t that much different.

“Plant-based meats protect the animals and are better for the planet, but they’re not necessarily healthier,” says Kim Kulp, RDN, owner of Gut Health Connection in the San Francisco Bay Area.

When compared to lean ground meat, some plant-based meats can be higher in saturated fat and sodium, which can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease, explains Kulp. 

Diets high in saturated fat and sodium are associated with an increased risk of heart disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat to 5% of your daily calories, or about 13 grams per 2,000 calories eaten. Excess sodium intake is linked to high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. To reduce this risk, the AHA recommends limiting sodium to 1,500 milligrams per day.

As a response, some companies producing plant-based meats are creating alternatives for customers looking to reduce their started fat and sodium intake. For example, Impossible released their take on a 90/10 lean meat called Beef Lite with 75% less saturated fat than their original product. A 4-ounce serving has only 1 gram of saturated fat and 6 grams of fiber (which Americans aren’t getting enough of). However, it does contain 260 milligrams of sodium, which is more than regular beef.

The bottom line

In general, the AHA recommends reducing meat consumption in order to benefit cardiovascular disease risk, as well as other digestive disorders linked to meat-heavy diets. However, swapping it out for plant-based meats may not be the answer, given how similar they are nutritionally.

Plant-based meats can have just as much saturated fat as regular meat and tend to have a higher amount of sodium and added oils. Nevertheless, some companies are looking to create healthier alternatives for customers looking to keep their intake low. It’s all dependent on the type of plant-based meats you decide to consume, which is why it’s important to check your labels.

Molly Snyder, RDN owner of Full-Filled Nutrition, says choosing plant-based meats over the real thing is all based on a person’s particular goals — whether it be nutritional coals or decreasing your carbon footprint. “It comes down to individualized nutrition for your frequency of all foods, health status, and goals,” she says.

For people who avoid meat altogether, plant-based meat can be a convenient way to eat more protein. Even so, it’s a good idea to include plant-based meats in moderation, along with plenty of other whole-food protein sources.

Read next: 8 Complete Protein Combinations for Plant-Based Foodies

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