As more people adopt vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, the question of whether plant-based diets are healthier than meat-based ones comes into play.
While some may argue that plantbased diets are better for health, that’s not necessarily true.
Made from curdled soymilk, tofu’s ingredients have previously been linked to health risks. It contains phytoestrogens — an isoflavone — and goitrogens, which have been known to block normal estrogen production and block thyroid hormone function, leading to breast cancer and hypothyroidism, respectively.
However, more recent studies suggest that isoflavones may promote healthier skin and reduce symptoms in women experiencing menopause, although there’s not enough research to determine this. As research is still underway, health experts advise that consumers eat tofu in moderation.
Tempeh is a vegetarian source of protein made from fermented soybeans. It has more protein than tofu, helping the consumer feel
fuller for longer in the same way meat does.
Tempeh also contains prebiotics, which help the body build good bacteria in the digestive system.
Additionally, tempeh may reduce cholesterol and oxidative stress due to its isoflavones, which contain antioxidants, and promote bone health due to its calcium.
Unlike tofu and tempeh, seitan is made from wheat protein rather than soybeans.
But, like tempeh, the extra protein makes it a healthy meat alternative that doesn’t leave the consumer hungry, as one might expect from a plant-based diet. It’s also low in carbs and fat.
However, seitan is a highly processed food that may or may not lead to obesity, depending on the consumer’s eating habits. Due to its nutritional nature, seitan may not be an issue for the consumer who eats a lot of whole foods, but it may lead to obesity in the consumer who has a high processed food intake.
Either way, seitan should be eaten in moderation to avoid gas, bloating, and other intestinal issues due to its high gluten content.
While meat substitutes have come under question as to how healthy they actually are, they aren’t the only ones. Just as they have health risks and benefits, meats do too.
Red Meat (Beef)
Although red meat is packed with protein and contains potential benefits, such as lower cholesterol and protection against anxiety and depression, due to grass-fed animals containing more omega-3 fatty acids, it also runs risks for cancer and increased mortality.
When grilling red meat, drippings may mix with the fire, releasing heterocyclic amines — which have been linked to cancer — into the air and onto the meat.
Additionally, increased mortality may be traced to red meat’s saturated fat and cholesterol content. Like tofu, it’s likely best to eat red meat in moderation.
Chicken is a generally healthy meat. Its components — protein, calcium, phosphorus, tryptophane, and vitamin B5 — can have many health benefits, like strengthening bones and relieving stress.
Chicken may also reduce the risk of arthritis. However, like some other meats and meat substitutes, chicken should probably be eaten in moderation.
Experts believe that people in the U.S. and U.K. are consuming 50% more protein than needed, which may be caused by consumers’ high rate of chicken consumption. Also, the amount of antibiotics that chickens are injected with may be a health risk.
Pork can be a nutritional source of food, as it’s packed with essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins, but it’s up to the consumer to make that call. Lean cuts, like tenderloins and chops, are more nutritious than bacon and other fatty cuts, which can cause high cholesterol and clogged arteries.
Vitamins B1, B2 (riboflavin), and B6 in pork can promote growth and repair of muscle tissues, improve skin problems like dry skin and acne, and improve metabolism, respectively.
The iron and zinc in pork can also promote energy production and a healthy immune system. Experts believe that people in the U.S. and U.K. are consuming 50% more protein than needed.
Like other meats, fish has many nutrients than can benefit health. It is high in protein and low in saturated fat.
Fish’s omega-3 fats help fight heart disease. Other possible benefits include reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, and depression.
However, fish may also contain mercury — which can damage nerves in adults and affect development in the brain and nervous system in children — that may be transferred to the consumer.
Each meat and meat substitute has its healthy and unhealthy aspects, so the consumer must take responsibility, make healthy choices, eat a well-balanced diet and, most importantly, do what personally works best.
5 Tips for Going Vegetarian/Vegan
Make sure you are doing it for the right reasons.
Your diet is going to affect you first and foremost, so be sure that your reasons for wanting to become vegetarian or vegan are for you and no one else.
Give yourself a break.
Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself picking up some ground beef at the market.
Dietary transitions take time, so taking breaks during which you do eat meat or dairy can be refreshing and prevent you from giving up in the long run.
You can try starting at just one vegetarian meal per day or one vegetarian day per week. Then, you can decrease your meat and/or dairy intake gradually.
Explore meat and/or dairy substitutes.
Cutting out your favorite foods doesn’t have to be all bad. Try new recipes using substitutes. You may be surprised.
Do the research.
Before beginning a new diet, you need to understand what it consists of, where you can get your nutrients, and how it will affect your body and mind.
Written by: Leah Morton