Can we just take a moment to acknowledge the surprising yum factor of a Beyond burger? When you’re road-tripping amidst a valley of fast food pit stops – and seeking those elusive veggie options – a delicious plant-based burger is basically a four-leaf clover.
From fishless tuna poke to the burgeoning Beyond Meat product line, today’s innovative plant-based protein substitutes are the real deal (and won’t leave you missing meat, or hangry at a gas station).
The plant-based meat is a booming industry.
Since listing on the public market, Beyond Meat’s stock has soared 800%. Clearly, it’s a thing.
As the meatless movement gains momentum and plant-based protein continues to go mainstream, both meat-eaters and herbivores are embracing this tasty trend.
The proliferation of “plant meat” has made both an ethical and environmental impact, while shifting a collective consciousness around reducing meat intake and seeing more fast food meat substitutes. Not going to lie, ordering a greasy beefless burger does ignite a spark of virtue (yay, conscious choices) and some of that childhood fast food indulgence.
But, just like you wouldn’t crush a regular beef burger and fries every day, the same goes for processed plant-based alternatives. As we know, vegan (or gluten-free!) doesn’t always equate to “healthy.”
“Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”
In 2008, author and activist Michael Pollan’s advice had a ripple effect that still resonates today. Pollan elaborated that ‘food’ should be of the whole variety, with the same philosophy applying to plant foods.
By ‘mostly plants,’ Pollan was referring to beans, lentils, nuts and pseudo-grains like quinoa and millet – plants that have nourished our ancestors for centuries. A growing field of evidence is indicating that this could be the short answer to sustaining the health of our bodies and the planet.
As Pollan has pointed out, there was a time in the past where whole foods were all we could eat. Today, we have an abundance of “food-like substances” or products of food science at our disposal. For good reason, health experts are now raising questions about the long term health implications of these processed patties.
There’s also the risk of high sodium intake, and poor quality saturated fats, which are often a staple in fast food – whether the burger is made of meat or veg.
Like any fast food or packaged option, indulging once in a blue moon or having the occasional treat is a healthier modus operandi. And better yet, try making your own homemade veggie burger!
The following introductory lesson will help clarify why going meatless – in its whole form – has all the benefits.
Plant-based protein vs animal protein
All protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. These amino acids play many structural roles in your body, creating everything from tissues to cells, enzymes and hormones.
Your incredible body can build most of these amino acids on its own, but not all. Nine of them, known as the essential amino acids, must be obtained through our diet. While animal sources are considered “complete” proteins, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids, the same is not true of plant proteins (with exceptions like quinoa, hemp, soy).
How does this affect my body?
If you choose to eat meat, the good news is that animal sources contain all of these essential “lego blocks” your body needs. If you’re following a plant-based diet, you need to exert a little more care to avoid deficiencies by eating a variety of protein sources.
And no sweat – you can follow a plant-based diet and still keep your iron levels up.
How do I make sure to eat a “complete protein” at every meal?
For years, vegetarians and vegans were told to ensure they were eating “complementary proteins” (i.e. protein sources that would complement each other to make up a complete protein); think rice and beans, nuts with dairy.
As long as we’re eating a variety of plant-based sources every day, the body will have a sufficient pool of amino acids to pull from to keep us healthy and thriving.
Why should we include more plant protein in our diet?
High protein foods, be it animal or vegetable, may be high in protein, but they also contain other nutrients like fats and carbohydrates.
When it comes to plant-based protein, these other nutrients tend to include fibre, healthy fats and phytonutrients (plant nutrients that help prevent disease), which are often missing in the typical North American diet.
We’re well aware that conventional livestock is one of the most significant contributors to environmental problems including deforestation, desertification, depletion of our freshwater, diverting food for use as feed, and greenhouse gas emissions.
By merely swapping some of your animal-based protein for plant-based, you’ll do wonders for your health and nutrition, while drastically reducing your carbon footprint and giving a little hug to Mama Earth.
What should I consider when choosing plant-based proteins?
Try opting for whole food sources of plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, quinoa, millet, tempeh and raw nuts & seeds.
What are some tips for going plant-based?
- Ease in: If you’re used to eating animal products at every meal, choose a few days (like the weekend) where you can play around with some new plant-based recipes. The more comfortable you get with these foods, the more natural having them in your diet will become.
- Keep things fresh and diverse: While quinoa, coconut, tofu or almonds may be your daily jam, if you consume these foods too much, over and over again (think almond milk, almond butter, almond flour everything) sensitivities and deficiencies can start to develop. Shake up your diet by choosing a variety of nuts, seeds, grains and legumes to keep your body (and belly) happy.
- Soak it up: Beans and nuts can be hard for the body to digest. Take the time to soak these foods overnight in an acidic medium (splash of lemon juice or apple cider vinegar) to maximize nutrition and ease digestion. This also cuts down on cooking time!
- Be a conscious consumer: Processed forms of soy or other plant proteins that are high in flavours, preservatives or GMOs are not benefitting anyone. Focus on whole food sources of plant-based protein.
Ok, fine, but can I still eat meat?
The short answer: YES. When done ethically, animal protein can offer some great nutritional benefits, like healthy fats, vitamins and minerals.
Choose higher quality sources of meat and poultry like free-range, grass-fed, organic, which are better for you and the planet. These may cost a little more, but they are worth the investment for your health.
Dishes centred on plant-based protein can be ultra-nourishing and delicious, so much so that you might find yourself eating less and less of the meat…
This article was originally published in 2015, written by Lynsey Walker. It has been updated with new facts and findings in August of 2019 by Chelsey Allen.