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Are Meat Substitutes Healthy?

Ten years ago the idea of shopping for vegan or plant-based meat substitutes in supermarkets was a daunting task. Eating out at a restaurant was even more daunting. At very best, the options would be broccoli and cheese pasta or goats cheese tart, which are incidentally, not vegan . . . but they were the best available options for the time.

It can often take people a very long time to adjust to the dietary changes that are needed to improve their health especially when society has been promoting meat and dairy as much needed staples since the end of the Second World War.

That was yesterday's news and thankfully today, it's a very different story. There are now a growing number of meat substitutes available in supermarkets and on most restaurant menus which make shopping and eating out a more enjoyable experience. At last!

There are some authentic substitutes such as the products from Beyond Meat, which for me, are too much like the real thing. Richmond vegan sausages are also a prime example of the substitute sausages being too much like the real thing. They smell, taste, feel and have the meat-like texture of the real thing.

Most of the substitutes are made from soya, mushrooms, lentils, or even vegetables. Some of my favourite vegan meat substitutes are vegan Quorn products, dried soya mince (any brand) Sainsbury's own brand and plant pioneers. This is because they are fake enough for me to know the difference but tasty enough for me to enjoy.

I've never been a big fan of meat products, even as a child and today I don't welcome the substitutes that are too similar to the real thing. However, I feel it's a great step forward for veganism and for the plant-based diet as the 'too real for words' substitutes can provide meat eaters with the satisfaction the need for meat without actually eating meat.

How much do meat substitutes cost?

In today's world everything revolves around money and many people state they can't afford to eat healthily as it costs too much. This is just not true. You can eat very cheaply and healthily on a plant-based diet. Meat substitutes come in at approximately the same cost as meat, or even less.

Are meat substitutes healthy?

Meat substitutes are highly processed plant-based, but NOT whole food as they contain isolates and extracts and they normally contain a lot of oil, salt and sugar, hence, why they still sizzle on a BBQ.

Most burgers or sausages are around 200 calories per item which makes up a large part of your calorie content for each meal you choose to substitute. When eaten with plenty of vegetables and rice rather than chips, even at 200 calories each they are still a healthier alternative to meat.

Many any people would say, the substitutes are not healthy at all, but is this correct?

What if a person is still eating meat?

"Meat contains Heme iron, which consumed through meat, poultry and fish, and is well absorbed by the body. High heme intake is associated with increased risk of several cancers, including colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer and lung cancer. Likewise, the evidence for increased risks of type-2 diabetes and coronary heart disease associated with high heme intake is compelling". Source

Would peoples health improve if they switched to some of the substitute products instead of eating meat? Or would their health remain the same, or worsen?

Researchers at Stanford Medicine published the results of the SWAP-MEAT Study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

You may be surprised at what the researchers found. They were!

36 people were randomised into 2 groups. One group ate two servings of red meat a day for 8 weeks, and the other group consumed 2 servings of the plant-based meat substitute 'Beyond Meat'brand products for 8 weeks. Then both groups switched diets.

The research team wanted to know how each diet affected cardiovascular risk. To measure the risk they measured things like cholesterol, blood pressure and weight.

They also measured an emerging risk factor for heart disease, TMAO.

What is TMAO?

TMAO stands for trimethylamine N-oxide, a substance which is produced when your body digests food that contains choline, found in red meat, eggs, fish and poultry.

TMAO is produced when certain bacteria in your gut feed on the choline, which then produces trimethylamine (TMA). The liver then converts TMA to TMAO. The more meat, dairy and eggs you eat, the more meat-eating bacteria grow in your gut, and the more TMAO your body produces.

Why does it matter?

“According to a news article published June 11 [2019] in JAMA, three recent analyses have linked high blood levels of TMAO with a higher risk for both cardiovascular disease and early death from any cause. In one of those studies, researchers found that people with higher levels of TMAO in their blood may have more than twice the risk of heart attack, stroke, or other serious cardiovascular problems, compared with people who have lower levels. Other studies have found links between high TMAO levels and heart failure and chronic kidney disease.” – Harvard Health

Higher levels of TMAO could double your risk of heart attack, stroke or other serious cardiovascular problems. Meat, certainly doesn't sound good for you, it sounds anything but true.

The Results of the SWAP-MEAT Study

The participants that ate the red meat diet first had an increase in TMAO, while those that started with the Beyond Meat instead of their normal diet of 1-2 servings a day of meat saw a drop in TMAO.

Interestingly, those that ate the plant-based “meat” first for 8 weeks, then switched to red meat, did NOT experience an increase in TMAO at all. So what happened?

When the participants stopped feeding their meat-eating gut bacteria, this species of bacteria was nearly wiped out. When they returned to eating red meat, there were no large colonies of TMA producing gut bacteria around. Eventually, if the participants continued to eat meat, the meat-eating gut bacteria would return to flourish, and the TMAO engine would be up and running again.

In both groups, the participants’ LDL cholesterol dropped an average of 10 miligrams per deciliter at the end of the plant-based phase, which is statistically and clinically significant. They also lost an average of 2 pounds during the plant-based portion of the diet. Not bad ehh?

I believe researchers would have seen an even greater improvement in the health factors of the participants had they have eaten whole food alternatives rather than meat alternatives produced with excess salt, sugar and oil? (I still think meat alternatives are a great idea by the way, it's just plants are better).

It has been scientifically proven that eating more fruit and vegetables rather than meat and dairy products can significantly improve your health and wellbeing. And whilst it's a great idea to consume as many vegetables as possible it's also a great idea to substitute meat products for fake meats if you are having problems giving up meat.

It took the major manufacturers a long-time to come around to the idea of producing substitute options. But as times change and consumers become more health and environmentally aware the need for substitute meat products grows.

Substitute meats also tend to be high in protein and vegan or plant-based diets can often lack in a sufficient amount of protein. But, products such as Quorn are high in protein and provide a decent amount of daily protein with just one or two helpings daily.

The Ratio - fake to fruit and veg

Our diet should be 90% based on whole and minimally processed plant-foods which leaves 10% of our calorie intake coming from less than ideal sources.

Substitute meats make eating out or accepting a dinner invitation at a friend’s house so much more doable and enjoyable because 10% of our calories can include low-nutrient foods, including highly-processed meat alternatives and even a glass of wine at dinner.

More reasons to be happy substitute products are on our shelves

More meat-eaters are exploring plant-based options. Plant-based meats are cholesterol-free, cruelty free and much better for the environment.

If you are new to eating plant-based, and are looking for a way to reduce your meat consumption or your family’s meat consumption, it’s nice to know there are meat alternatives that are very close to the real thing and have no adverse health effects, even helping to improve health benefits – lower cholesterol and lower TMAO – for better health.

The Sum Up

In a recent study plant-based meat alternatives were found:

  • Are healthier than meat products

  • Showed health markers to improve health benefits

  • They are better for the environment

  • Help to protect against animal cruelty

  • Have no adverse effects on health

  • Cost around the same price as meat if not less.

  • They taste great!

  • Are usually high in protein

It's sometimes difficult to know what to cook and how to cook it when you are new to a different way of cooking and eating. Below you'll find a link to the plant-based cookbook which is full of exciting recipes.

Why not try the amazing plant-based recipes which are available in the plant-based diet cook book. I've tried most of them and i'm never bored with meal times. The recipes are even better for dinner parties.

You can get plant-based cook book here

If you are looking to build muscle and lose fat you may benefit more from the vegan muscle diet.

You can get the Vegan muscle diet here

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