By Saba Zahid, RD, LDN
Plant-based meat alternatives have been popular in the past couple of years, and fast-food chains are jumping on the bandwagon. Burger King rolled out the Impossible Whopper earlier this summer, and KFC recently announced that the company would begin trialing vegan chicken nuggets in a select region. Many health practitioners, from doctors to dietitians, do recognize and advocate for more plant-based/plant-heavy eating patterns for the various health benefits. But does this new plant-based meat alternative trend count as part of that big picture of plant-based eating?
While it's tempting to think vegan automatically means healthy, that's not necessarily true. The word “vegan” indicates that there are no animal products in the food item/dish. The term "plant-based" can also be deceptive when it comes to these meat alternatives. Whole plant ingredients are not used to make these commercially available plant-based "meats"; rather, they are made with highly processed ingredients..
Nutritionally, the alternatives aren't much healthier than their animal protein counterparts. Other than being slightly lower in saturated fat (depending on the preparation), plant-based meat alternatives are not nutritionally superior to a regular beef burger or fried chicken. The number of calories and fat are pretty similar. However, plant-based meat alternatives tend to be higher in sodium and contain numerous additives to create that meat-like texture and taste.
So how do plant-based meat alternatives fit into the big picture of a healthy eating pattern? Plant-based innovations provide a comparable alternative to animal protein favorites like burgers and fried chicken, which is something the vegan/vegetarian world hasn't had before. However, these food items should be consumed in moderation. Although there is currently no recommendation for plant-based meat alternatives, I would recommend sticking to the same rule for red meats: no more than two servings per week. (Remember, nutritionally these plant-based food items have a similar number of calories and amounts of fat and only slightly less saturated fat, depending on preparation). A plant-based diet should instead focus on whole foods, such as nuts, legumes, whole vegetables and fruits, and animal protein in moderation (if you so choose).
Are you struggling to understand a plant-based diet and navigate the different food options available? Work with our dietitians at the outpatient nutrition counseling program. For more information, contact us at 609-653-4600, opt 5.