Plant-based meats such as Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger are showing up everywhere from the supermarket to fast-food restaurants and fine dining establishments. If you’ve ever tasted it, you know it is a great way to get the flavor and texture of meat without the whole “eating animals” part. While plant-based meats are nothing new (remember Tofurky?), in the past year, they’ve become one of the biggest food crazes.
I interviewed Cynthia Thurlow, NP, to find out whether these types of products are healthy or just hype.
Where Did Plant-Based Meats Come From?
Thurlow thinks the popularity of these products is driven by special interests. “There is so much propaganda that many individuals honestly don't know where to turn for accurate information,” she says. “I also believe this is in response to the rise of diets that are more animal protein focused like keto, paleo, primal, and carnivore.”
Is It Really Healthier To Be Vegan?
While it’s not impossible to be healthy on a vegan diet, it’s far easier to be unhealthy. Lots of processed foods, carbs, and other unhealthy options are vegan. After all, a vegan cookie is still a cookie.
Thurlow is not a fan of a vegan diet in general. “Vegan diets are not viable long term as they lead to digestive issues, depression relative to a diet poor in B12, iron, and the impact of low fat/low cholesterol on the brain and hormonal health,” she says.
Depression can be another side effect of a vegan diet.
It also turns out that depression can be another side effect of a vegan diet. Thurlow explains, "Depression can absolutely be exacerbated by underlying nutrient deficiencies and poor-quality diets....75-80% of our neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, etc.) are produced in the gut, so these can worsen or exacerbate or solely contribute to this."
Why the Real Thing Can Be a Better Option
It turns out that meat isn’t as bad for us as we think it is. “Animal-based proteins are more easily digestible and are complete. Meaning you don't have to combine different types of proteins as you do with a plant-based diet. Only a few plant-based proteins are complete and they are relatively higher in carbs (hemp seeds, quinoa, soy),” explains Thurlow.
Animal-based proteins are more easily digestible and are complete.
The Problem with Fake Meat
Thurlow, like most medical professionals, suggests reading the labels on any processed foods you are considering eating, especially anything soy-based. “Soy-based burgers are not healthy. Most of these plant-based burgers have lots of additives, preservatives, and emulsifiers.”
But there is a time and a place for everything. For example, if you’re on the road and there are no healthy options (and the thought of regular fast food burgers grosses you out), by all means, the occasional Beyond Burger at Burger King won’t kill you. But if you’re on the road often and find yourself starving, she says it’s better to be prepared instead of stuck.
Most of these plant-based burgers have lots of additives, preservatives, and emulsifiers.
“I truly believe everything in moderation, so that includes traveling and trying to make a situation work. This is typically when I suggest my patients carry nuts/seeds, jerky (clean versions that are grass-fed) and clean protein bars (there's nothing worse than being stuck in an airport with no healthy options). So, always be prepared and have some healthy options available to consume,” she says.
Alternatives to Alternative Meats
Thurlow isn’t against veggie burgers entirely, as long as they’re not highly processed. One of her favorites is a grilled veggie burger recipe from The Minimalist Baker. “This example has whole food ingredients and would get my seal of approval, if someone tolerates grains, etc.,” she says.
That being said, if you’re vegan and eating healthfully, for the most part a Beyond or Impossible Burger won’t hurt you if you eat it on occasion or maybe even once a week. Think of it as a treat like a cupcake or pizza. But making it a staple of your diet or eating highly processed foods every day isn’t going to do your physical and emotional health or hormones any favors.