Much of food media today is centered around plant-based diets, with new and longtime vegetarians alike rejoicing at the wide availability of meat alternatives like Beyond Beef, frozen Holiday Tofurkeys, and Chik’n Nuggets. These foods are marketed as healthy, safe, and cruelty-free substitutes for meat products. As time goes on, more restaurants have offered a Beyond Beef patty option on their regular burger menu, and plant-based eaters at home use these products as kitchen staples.
Unfortunately, these products are not equal to meat nutritionally, and many will do more harm to your body than good. Not only are these products unhealthy, but oftentimes the cruelty that they prevent for livestock animals in production is done instead to poorly paid workers—and our environment. Here, we’ll talk about why popular meat alternatives are no substitute for the real deal, and what careful dietary decisions can be made for those still seeking to eat plant-based.
Meat is a nutritional shortcut. With a high amount of protein, iron, zinc, selenium, calcium, vitamins D and B12, and all of the amino acids needed to take those in, there is no question as to why it is a centerpiece in so many meals. Eating one three-ounce ribeye steak will provide 230 calories that contain about 25% of the recommended daily intake of fat, 11% of the daily intake of iron, and 21 grams of protein. That’s a lot of fuel and healthy fats that cause you to feel fuller for longer—all in a very small package. Not a fan of red meat? One chicken breast holds 37 grams of protein and 7% of daily recommendations for both fat and iron in only about 200 calories. People all over the world from the earliest days of man have gone through the work of hunting and raising meat because of these fats and proteins. These nutrients in a simple cut of meat provide plenty of energy and satiety, and all they need is a bit of heat and seasoning.
Of course, there is the issue of animal welfare. As the population of Earth has grown, industrial farming has taken over to keep up with the demand for meat. Industrial farms—here meaning a large-scale, profitable production facility for food—exist for money. This means that the animals in these places are bred, raised, and slaughtered with concern only about how much meat they can yield in as short of time as possible. To increase their bottom line, industrial meat farms will keep animals in filthy, crowded conditions, supply them with the absolute cheapest feed possible, fill them with growth hormones and antibiotics, and bring them to slaughter in mobs on production lines. If that isn’t bothersome from an animal welfare perspective, consider this: all of that filth, medication, and low-cost feed given to the animals is then packaged and sold to you at the grocery store. We are what we eat, and that is just as true of us as it is of the animals we feed on.
An example of this is in a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, or CAFO. This is the standard used in many industrial farms, defined by the confinement of over one thousand “animal units” for over forty-five days a year. One thousand “animal units” is equal to 700 dairy cows; 1,000 meat cows; 2,500 pigs weighing over 55 pounds or 10,000 under that weight; 10,000 sheep; or 125,000 chickens. All of these “animal units” are confined to indoor spaces. Predictably, this leads to less vitamin D intake for the animals, which, you guessed it—means less vitamin D in your food.
Shawn Day, Nashville chapter leader for the Weston A. Price Foundation and President of Tennesseans for Raw Milk, offers a simple answer for meat-eaters: “Small farms are where we need to move back to,” she states, explaining that not only do they circumvent the health risks industrial farming causes for both animals and people, but that they are the “best system of providing food to a community.” Small, local farms generally treat their livestock better (like grass-feeding cattle in the sun where they belong), and local supply is fresher, traveling shorter distances to reach the consumer. Fresh food will always be higher in nutrients and lower in dangerous bacteria, especially if that food hasn’t been living shoulder to shoulder with other food in its own filth. So, eat meat if you please! Just get it from a farm that will actually supply the benefits you’re eating it for.
PRETEND MEAT TO AVOID
In lieu of the over-industrialization of meat products, many have simply gone meatless. Unfortunately, people switch to a meatless diet without the will or thought to change their habits at mealtime. In this, industrial food providers have found their new angle. Meat substitution companies like Beyond and Impossible have taken advantage of the growing distaste for industrial meat production.
In 2017, Beyond Meat’s annual revenue was $33 million. By 2020, it had risen to $407 million spurred by a 1200% increase in sales. “I think what you’re seeing with the demonization of meat is big agriculture making a profit,” says Day. “Plants are cheaper to make, but can be sold for more.” The industrial food market has adapted to take advantage of consumer sentiment, but it hasn’t been to our benefit.
First, a Beyond Burger is no healthier than a grass-fed beef burger. Second, a quick look at the ingredients will tell you that a large portion of that “juicy” patty is actually just canola oil and water. While the second ingredient in Beyond Beef is pea protein (a bioavailable and fibrous protein source serving as the focal point of its marketing), canola oil is useless at best and harmful at worst. People today are already at a hefty imbalance of omega-3 to omega-6, with high amounts of omega-6 in oils like canola present in much of our pre-packaged and processed foods. This is causing a massive problem with inflammation throughout our digestive systems, which leads to more health issues in our immune, cardiovascular, and nervous systems.
Additionally, both Beyond and Impossible meats are saltier than some plain ground beef, effectively being pre-seasoned to make up for the lack of natural flavor. One patty of Impossible meat will supply you with nearly a full fifth of your daily sodium intake, with Beyond Meat not far behind. While salt is generally good for you in the right amounts, pairing that burger with some tastefully salted fries will give you a lot more than you need in one sitting.
Where else will we find a burger and fries on the go but at regular fast-food eateries? Beyond Meat’s insane revenue increase is driven largely by partnerships with chains that want to provide “healthier” (ha), “vegetarian” (cooked in industrially-farmed meat grease) options. These now include Denny’s, TGI Friday’s, UNO Pizzeria & Grill, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Hardee’s, and Dunkin, to name a few. Let’s be perfectly clear: you will never receive health food from these businesses.
HOW TO EAT A PLANT-BASED DIET (THE RIGHT WAY)
It is possible to eat a vegetarian diet and remain healthy, but one absolutely must commit themselves to become a hobbyist nutritionist. There are no shortcuts in a balanced vegetarian diet. Protein aside, a number of nutrients that come automatically to meat-eaters—B12, selenium, zinc, calcium, vitamin D, and iron—must be a focus for the healthy vegetarian.
For adequate protein, a vegetarian must generally eat more (in grams) than their omnivorous counterpart. This is because in general, plant-based sources of protein are less bioavailable than meat due to a lack of the nine essential amino acids needed to digest it. Having protein alongside these nine amino acids makes what is called a complete protein. All animal products are complete proteins, but the following list is what healthy plant-based eaters are deeply familiar with:
- Rice and beans, together
- Mycoprotein (Quorn, made from mushrooms)
- Hummus and pita, together
- Peanut butter and whole wheat bread, together
Note how certain foods form a complete protein when combined. This is because legumes (like beans, lentils, or nuts) and whole grains (like rice and wheat) together contain the nine amino acids we need to digest them fully. Vegetarians rejoice! This is inexpensive and easy to put together.
Of course, people need a lot more than protein to live, and this is why I refer to meat as a shortcut. B12 alone is a strong argument for ovo-lacto vegetarianism (meaning no meat, but eggs and dairy are fine). Eggs and dairy products can easily provide the B12 needed each day, along with fortified foods taken with discretion. These will also provide the needed calcium and vitamin D for your body. For vegans, meeting that calcium requirement will take a whole lot of kale, white beans, molasses, sesame seeds, and seaweed. For vitamin D, many vegans will rely on fortified juices and nut milks, but chanterelle and morel mushrooms are also a reliable source.
I’m certain many readers have a vegetarian or vegan friend with an iron deficiency—or maybe that friend is reading this. This is common among plant-based eaters but fret not. While you need to eat a lot, you can develop a stable amount of iron in your blood with dark leafy greens and legumes. Get cooking, and bring a stool in case you need to sit down. Those legumes will have the added bonus of giving you the zinc you need. Pair them with whole grain and you’ve got a meal!
Selenium can be a bit tricky, but it’s necessary for thyroid health and immune system support. Brazil nuts have the highest concentration of it for plant-based eaters, but you will also need to have shiitake mushrooms, pinto beans, seeds, and green veggies like cabbage, broccoli, and spinach.
Reading through all of this, it may seem that there are a lot of necessary foods that a) require some preparation, b) are not widely available, and c) can be expensive. That’s correct—you are taking the hard route to nutrition, and now this knowledge should be part of your reality if you want to remain healthy. Plant-based eating offers no shortcuts. Not only must you now do some degree of calculation in the kitchen, but the grocery store needs you to do some math as well. Because each food in a plant-based diet offers some vitamins and trace minerals more than others, you cannot simply subsist on peanut butter sandwiches and spinach—vegetarianism demands variety (even more so than an omnivorous diet), and each item mentioned above should be worked into your diet with some regularity.
DO WHAT'S RIGHT
Whether you eat meat or not, getting proper nutrition is important. With the industrial food system in place today, that takes a bit of thought and effort. The bottom line is that massive companies don’t exist to nourish you. They exist to make money. So, look out for yourself. A little skepticism will take you a long way. Find grass-fed meat, humanely raised chicken, and avoid hormones and antibiotics. If you don’t eat meat, do the necessary work to keep your body in order. Spend the extra dollar or two and the extra hour in the kitchen!
When I found out in 2013 that eating the meat I loved was causing me to feel bloated, anxious, sweaty, and tired, I knew I had to make a change. At the time, I was working a job that gave me enough free time to study and cook meals that truly nourished me without using meat as a shortcut. Carefully curated menus and considerable kitchen time carried me for seven years. When the pandemic hit, my business fell apart, and I was forced—like many—to take on extra work.
Without thinking, I began relying more heavily on pre-prepared foods—protein bars and frozen chik'n nuggets—and my body took notice. When I stopped my work frenzy for long enough to notice the bags that had grown under my eyes, omnipresent fatigue, and regular migraines, I did what made sense to me at the time: I added fish to my diet. Immediately, these problems disappeared. Today, I continue to thrive on a pescatarian diet that religiously includes oysters (for extra zinc) on a weekly basis. This is what my body needs, and so this is what I do. I hope you do what your body needs as well.