This article was originally published on Triathlete.
With mounting evidence that eating excessive amounts of meat can have health and environmental ramifications, more athletes are trying to reduce their consumption of animal-based foods and increase their intake of plant-based ones. But it’s hard to bid adieu to the beloved taste of meats like a perfectly cooked steak or juicy beef burger, which is why plant-based imitation “meats” continue to gain popularity as a feasible way for someone to reduce animal product consumption while still checking the boxes of taste and convenience.
While traditional meat substitutes such as tofu and tempeh have been around for centuries, technological advancements, such as protein isolation, have made it possible to develop meat alternatives that more closely resemble the taste, texture and color (hello, beet juice and blood red soy leghemoglobin) of actual meat. Gone are the days of veggie burgers that taste like salty cardboard. Instead, it’s a new era of meatless patties that are just as juicy and plump as the real deal. Food scientists are even experimenting with a process known as microgelation to give plant proteins much-needed hydration and a juicy feel in the mouth.
With a growing production trend of meat substitution products, these days you can find hot Italian plant-only sausages and no-chicken nuggets right alongside the beef and chicken at the meat counter. Stroll through the snack aisle and you may now spot meaty jerky from mushrooms, not cow. Whether it’s turkey deli meat from wheat protein or meatballs hailing from peas, there’s a protein-packed option sans meat for you. Yes, we are living in a golden age of plant-based meats, and you can’t help but marvel at this stuff. And marvel we do: According to one recent Yale University study, 55 percent of Americans say they are willing to try eating plant-based meat alternatives.
From personal experience, many of these products are pretty damn tasty. If any meat alternatives are capable of converting carnivores, it’s these modern-day replicas. If you plan to start cooking plant-based meats at home, know that you’ll prepare them pretty much the same way you would regular meat. After all, plant-based meat is designed to mimic traditional meat in most ways, including cooking, so you can throw the patties on the grill, sauté up crumbles to stuff into tacos, and top the pizza with plant-based pepperoni.
But what many people are most concerned about is not how they are prepared and taste, instead whether these simulated meat-like products are any healthier than what they are trying to replace and can help an athlete still perform their best.
Here’s what athletes need to know about the plant-based fake-outs.
Are Meat Alternatives Good or Bad for You?
Simply put, plant-based meats are foods made from plants to resemble animal-based meat. Overall, these meat alternatives typically have a long list of ingredients including protein isolates, food extracts, and emulsifiers, and can be classified as ultra-processed foods (UPFs), according to NOVA—an increasingly widely used food-classification system that classifies all foods into 1 of 4 groups according to the processing they undergo.
Increasingly, recommendations are being made to restrict the consumption of UPFs because their intake, in high quantities, is associated with a variety of adverse health outcomes. This begs the question: Should you be chicken to eat ultra-processed plant chicken?
Nutritional Makeup of Plant-Based Meats
In contrast to veggie burgers of yore, the new breed of meat alternatives are created to have a Nutrition Facts label that more closely resembles that of meat, including protein, fat, iron, and calorie numbers. But despite the nutritional similarities, we still do not have much in the way of reliable data to know if these plant-based imitations are more beneficial to health than eating meat from animals, but studies are starting to trickle in.
In an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study, adults ate either roughly the same quantity (an average of 14 servings a week) of animal meat or plant-based meat (products from the brand Beyond Meat) for eight weeks, and then switched diets for another eight weeks. When they ate plant-based meats, they had much lower levels of TMAO, a metabolite from meat that is believed to be associated with an increased risk for heart disease and certain cancers. Participants also had lower levels of LDL cholesterol and lost a bit more weight when eating the faux meats. The research indicated that overall dietary levels of protein and sodium were the same on both diets, that fiber consumption was higher when eating plant-based meat, and that saturated fat consumption was lower when eating burgers and sausages from plants. (Of note, some plant-based meats have just as much saturated fat as higher-fat cuts of meat because of the liberal use of coconut oil.)
So, in this case, one could argue that the downsides of eating this category of ultra-processed food are outweighed by eating less meat. However, a follow-up investigation determined that biomarkers of inflammation were not improved by eating plant-based meats.
Plant-Based Meat and the Microbiome
As has been well documented, the microbiome plays a critical role in athletic performance, so it would be wise to pay attention to plant-based meats and their effect on gut bacteria. One small study found that substituting meat for plant-based meats can have a minor, yet positive impact on the microbiome. The result was a shift towards a higher population of beneficial microbes and away from more detrimental ones. The observed gut microbiome changes might have been due to changes in fiber consumption, rather than other inherent properties of the plant-based meat alternatives.
Iron in Meat Alternatives
Some concern has been raised that iron absorption from many engineered plant-based meat alternatives can be inferior compared to that in meat which may contribute to poor iron status, something that can be concerning to plant-based endurance athletes. However there is no proof that eating some plant-based meats as part of a varied diet contributes to iron deficiency.
One advantage of these plant meats is that they do not create heterocyclic amines (HCAs) when grilled, compounds created when meats are cooked over high heat, and have been linked to cancer development when consumed in high amounts. The amino acids involved in this reaction are only present in animal tissue.
Plant-Based Meat and Protein for Athletes
In a study that should be of interest to any athlete who is considering going bigger on plants, scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine found that runners and weight lifters experienced no difference in performance metrics (a 12-minute timed run for runners and a weight machine lift for resistance trained athletes) when they followed either a whole-food plant-based diet, a plant-based meat alternatives diet, or an omnivore diet that included red meat and poultry for protein. This suggests that athletes can win on various types of diets as long as their protein and overall nutritional needs are met.
A 2023 Journal of Nutrition investigation discovered that fungi-derived mycoprotein (tastes better than it sounds) is just as effective at supporting muscle building during resistance training as animal protein. In America, you’ll mostly easily find mycoprotein sold under the brand name Quorn. But expect more plant products developed from fungi on the market in the coming years.
Meat alternatives are typically made using concentrated sources of soy protein or pea protein, and can have just as much protein as what you’d get from a cow, chicken, or hog—roughly 20 grams in a 4-ounce serving. Just watch out for some of the meat alternatives that are protein lightweights. Items made from jackfruit or cauliflower can contain so little protein it’s laughable to think that they will help you build muscle let alone make a meal satiating.
What About the Environment?
There are strong reasons to reduce industrial animal agriculture for the good of the environment. In terms of environmental sustainability, plant-based meat alternatives are considered to be more sustainable compared to animal products across a range of outcomes including greenhouse gas emissions, water use, and land use. But without an agreed-upon method for assessing the environmental impact of what we eat, much of the comparison depends on individual researchers’ assumptions.
Calculating the environmental impact of any food product is enormously complex with so many nuances. For instance, does your burger come from grass-fed cows as part of a regenerative agriculture system or from feed-lot animals? Are you only measuring the impacts of growing the foods or are you also taking into consideration the processing and packaging involved in bringing it to market?
All that processing involved in turning plants into something that looks and tastes like meat is going to drive up the environmental cost. What this means is that when it comes to the environment, data is still murky about just how much better plant-based meats are for Mother Nature. But know that a homemade black bean burger is going to hit the environment less hard than ready-made meatless meats.
It’s also worth mentioning that the way plant-based meats are created is generally safer for workers than traditional meat processing plants, which have a long history of problematic working conditions.
The Bottom Line on Meat Alternatives
No doubt, these better-tasting meat alternatives can help reduce overall meat consumption. Especially so if their price point comes down which makes purchasing them easier on food budgets. Further research is needed to determine if replacing some or all of the meat in our diets with plant-based alternatives could provide some health and performance advantages. When comparing animal-based foods to their alternatives, it helps to remember that meat isn’t inherently bad for you. The problem arises when we eat too much, especially processed red meats, and when they crowd out whole-food plants from our diets.
There is not necessarily anything particularly healthy about a plant-only hot dog or Bolognese featuring pea protein crumbles. The context, however, in which we consume an individual food matters greatly, yet is often forgotten in debate whether a food is healthy or not. If you typically eat a plant-based burger with fries and sugary soda then its consumption is part of an unhealthy eating pattern that can be detrimental to health and podium finishes. But if you sauté up some meatless grounds on occasion that are served with plenty of veggies and whole grains then eating highly processed meat alternatives is something less concerning. All of the meat alternatives can provide variety and an acceptable option for eating less actual meat, but at most they should be a rather minor part of a healthful plant-based diet.
And always remember that if you’re looking for a meat alternative with fewer whatchamacallits in the ingredient lists, there are still options to consider that are high in protein – they may not be as buzz-worthy as their burger-shaped counterparts, but tofu, tempeh, and seitan are always solid options for those looking for plant-based ingredients for dinner.