Tips on Choosing a Meat Substitute

Carbon Health Editorial Team
August 26, 2021
4.5 mins

For some people who are trying to eat less meat and more plant-based food (or who have decided to go vegan altogether) navigating events like family barbecues can be tricky. For one thing, what goes on the grill?! But whether it’s a backyard Labor Day get together or a meal at home, there’s a meat substitute for the occasion. They’re everywhere these days — including major fast food chains. 

However, from a health perspective, not all imitation meat products are the same — some are more nutritious than others (and just because a food is plant-based doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy). In this post, we’re taking a look at some options and asking, “Where’s the beef (substitute)?”

Why Choose Imitation Meat?

Plant-based proteins are a great option for people who want to eat less meat. And going right to the source is often the healthiest route: tofu or tempeh (made from soy), beans, and nuts are nutritious, protein-rich foods. 

And these ingredients — soybeans and other beans (kidney, navy, black, or mung beans, for instance) — are the key ingredient in many imitation meats that you’ll find in grocery stores and health food markets. These products might also contain protein derived from potatoes, peas, or brown rice.

Plant-based proteins are lower in saturated fat than traditional meat products, which is one important health benefit: cutting down on saturated fat can lower blood cholesterol levels, in addition to providing other health benefits. They typically also contain more fiber, which can help maintain bowel regularity, aid digestion, help regulate blood sugar, and even prevent certain cancers

Not All Meat Substitutes Are the Same

Because plant proteins usually contain very little fat, fat is often added to the food product for flavor and texture, in the form of olive oil, coconut oil, cocoa butter, or other vegetable oil. 

Some products may have other additives. Beets are added to many plant-based burgers to give them a more “meaty” look. Some products contain plant-based heme iron (developed by fermentation), which provides a meaty flavor. (Heme is a type of iron that is usually found only n meat-based proteins and that is more easily absorbed by our bodies than most plant-based irons.) Many contain added sodium and other flavorings.

Reading Labels

As with any processed food, the more a food has been changed from its original form, the more we consumers need to be aware of what was added. In the case of all nuggets, burgers, and sausages (meat-based or plant-based), it’s important to read the label. 

Processed foods can be high in sodium, sugar, and added fats, which are not good for your body in large amounts. By checking the nutrition facts label, you can check portion size and understand what you’re eating. Checking the %DV (percent daily value) numbers on these labels can help you keep track of what’s going into your body. 

Here are some other things to keep in mind: 

Protein: If you’re intending that the imitation meat act as a source of protein, make sure it provides some. Proteins are an important source of amino acids, which are necessary building blocks for the body’s tissues and structures — and certain essential amino acids must come from the foods we eat. One very rough way to determine how much protein you need each day is to multiply your weight by 0.36. The result is the recommended daily allowance of protein, in grams, for someone with your weight (keep in mind that this number can vary greatly depending on your age, overall health, and activity levels — this is one reason that talking to your healthcare provider about your diet and nutrition is extremely beneficial).

A three-ounce serving of chicken or beef typically provides about 20 grams of protein, so look for an imitation meat product to provide at least 10. 

Sodium: The American Heart Association recommends no more than 2,300 mg (milligrams) of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 mg per day for most adults. (People with certain heart conditions should consume less than that.) Most Americans consume too much sodium. Potassium can counteract some negative health effects of sodium, so see what the label has to say about potassium content as well — and consider complementing your meal with potassium-rich veggies such as artichokes, beets, sweet potatoes, cooked spinach, and Brussels sprouts. (People with kidney disease should avoid consuming too much potassium — too much of anything, even a vital nutrient, can sometimes be a bad thing!)

Fats: Most imitation meats are made with polyunsaturated oils, which can help lower levels of “bad” cholesterol. But some do have a significant amount of saturated fat, often from coconut oil. Look for veggie meats with no more than two grams of saturated fat per serving. (Learn more about staying in control of your cholesterol levels.) 

In addition to choosing healthy protein sources (and there are plenty out there that taste great after grilling!), be sure to round out your diet with plenty of whole fruits and vegetables. The key to ensuring good health is making sure that you eat a balanced diet with all the necessary fats, proteins, carbs, and vitamins.

Thinking about making a major change to your diet? Talk about the implications with a Carbon Health healthcare provider — make a virtual or in-person appointment at or via the Carbon Health app.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Carbon Health Editorial Team

The Carbon Health Editorial Team is a group of writers, content creators, and thought leaders who are here to empower you to take charge of your health.