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vegan meat

QUESTION: “Hi Dr. Neal, I've been a vegan for over a year. Are there any health benefits, non-benefits, or bad reasons to be having fake, vegan meat? I would love to know if I should take that out of my diet or if it’s okay to have once in a while. Thank you.”

DR. NEAL: Thank you so much for taking the time to send me your question.

I still remember when I was in school training to become a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist – one of the classes I had to take in order to graduate was one called “Vegetarian Nutrition.”

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on Episode 1519 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


Is a Vegan Diet Healthy?

As the class went on, I couldn’t help but feel like my professor was really biased. My professor never seemed to discuss any of the potential drawbacks to following a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Don’t get me wrong, following a vegetarian or vegan diet can be a really healthy pattern of eating. But there are instances when a person may follow a vegetarian or a vegan diet but still be at-risk for certain health problems. Just like everyone else, vegan, vegetarian, or omnivore, they may be at-risk for certain nutrient deficiencies.

I’ll give you an example – an example I’ve experienced in my practice: a patient comes to me and says, “Dr. Neal – you’ll be so happy – I’ve decided to become a vegetarian!”

I would say something like, “Ok, so let’s talk about what you’ve been eating.” They’ll say, “Sure! For breakfast, I have a bowl of oatmeal, for lunch I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and for dinner, spaghetti with marinara sauce.”

Let’s stop for a second and think about this: oatmeal, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, spaghetti – this isn’t a VEG-etarian diet, it’s a CARB-etarian diet. Besides the marinara sauce, there isn’t anything close to a vegetable in sight!

Are Processed Vegan Meat Healthy?

But then, there’s another version of this patient. Let’s try this one: “Dr. Neal – you’ll be so happy – I’ve decided to become a vegan!”

I would say something like, “Ok, so let’s talk about what you’ve been eating.” They’ll say, “Sure! For breakfast, I had vegan sausage with whole wheat toast, for lunch a tofurkey sandwich made with vegan turkey, and for dinner spaghetti with marinara sauce and vegan meatballs.”

So, in this case, the person is following a vegan diet, but is it a good idea to consume so many of these processed vegan meat?

And in fact, this was the question I asked my professor: if a person were to follow a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle and much of their diet consisted of these plant-based meat substitutes, would that still be considered a nutritious diet?

Unfortunately, my professor responded with an unclear, kind of rambling response. And this was probably because there weren’t a lot of studies on this topic. And sadly, there still aren’t. But I was able to find a very interesting study that related to your question…

Nutrient Content of Meat Alternatives

Australian researchers wanted to examine the nutrient content of some of these meat alternatives. Again, I should mention that many of these meat alternatives are plant-based and are often made with soy, beans, lentils, and even some grains.

What these researchers found was that, when compared to the actual meat, many of these plant-based meat alternatives were generally lower in calories, lower in total fat, and lower in saturated fat. This is good news – we typically want to eat foods that are filling but lower in calories and lower in potentially harmful fat. But they also found that these meat substitute products were usually higher in carbohydrate, sugars, and sodium when compared to real meat.

In fact, 96% of the sampled products contained over 1200 milligrams of sodium per 100 gram serving. On top of that, very few of these meat substitute products had enough essential micronutrients like vitamin B12, iron, and zinc. Animal products are naturally good sources of vitamin B12, iron and zinc but plant-based sources are not. Those that follow a vegetarian and vegan diet are at-risk for developing certain nutrient deficiencies. We’ve known this fact for years: vitamin B12, iron and zinc deficiencies are quite common among those that follow a vegan or vegetarian diet.

So, based on these results the Australian researchers said that nutrition guidelines may need to be followed more closely when creating these meat substitutes so that their nutrient content is more aligned with real meat.

Conclusion: Vegan Meat

There’s another concern. When you look at the products’ Nutrition Facts Label and scroll the ingredients list, you’ll probably find that they include lots of hard-to-pronounce ingredients. This usually means that they may contain lots of additives and preservatives – things that our bodies may not really need.

And as of now, there aren’t any long-term studies that I’ve seen on the effects of eating these types of meat substitutes and overall health. If you can believe it, these plant-based meat substitutes have only been around since the 1990s – and really only became popular in the last 15 years. So, until we have well-designed long-term studies looking at the effects of eating these meat substitutes on overall health, it’s hard to know for sure how the body will respond.

My recommendation is this: use these meat substitutes sparingly for now. Meaning, don’t make them part of every meal but sprinkle in these plant-based meat substitutes every now and then when you need a change. Instead, focus on consuming mostly whole foods – foods that closely resemble what they looked like when they were first harvested.

Also, if you haven’t already, talk to your doctor or a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist about whether you need to start supplementing with vitamin B12, iron, zinc, calcium, and omega-3 fatty acids just to make sure all of our bases are covered.

Listen to Dr. Neal narrate this post on Episode 1519 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.

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Neal Malik

Dr. Neal Malik ("Dr. Neal") has a Doctorate in Public Health with emphases in disease prevention and nutrition. He is also a Registered Dietitian and Certified Health Education Specialist. He is currently an assistant professor at California State University, San Bernardino. Dr. Neal has published peer-reviewed scientific research and been featured as a nutrition and wellness expert in over 70 media outlets including Parade and The L.A. Times.Send in your health related question and Dr. Neal will answer it on the Optimal Health Daily show!
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