Meat Substitutes: The Best and the Worst
There are endless ways to incorporate meat substitutes into your daily diet, but perhaps the simplest method is to use them in place of meat in your favorite recipes.
If you’ve ever transitioned to a plant-based diet, you’re probably all too familiar with the first question that everyone asks: “Where are you getting your protein from?” While meat supplies a good amount of protein (as well as other important vitamins and minerals), there are many meat substitutes available that can easily provide a similar set of nutrients.
In fact, several of these foods are also high in other health-promoting properties that may not be found in meats, such as probiotics and fiber. By incorporating a few servings of plant-based protein foods in your diet, you can meet your nutritional needs and even enhance the health of your diet, vegetarian or not.
Importance of Protein
There’s no doubt that protein is absolutely vital to overall health. Protein forms the foundation of your hair, skin, nails, bones, muscles and cartilage. Not only that, but your body uses protein for the growth and repair of tissue cells as well as the production of important hormones and enzymes.
Getting enough protein in your diet has also been associated with a number of potential health benefits. It can aid in weight loss by supporting satiety, decreasing caloric intake and reducing levels of ghrelin, the hormone that stimulates hunger. (1, 2) It’s also been shown to preserve bone mass, help maintain normal blood sugar levels and boost brain function. (3, 4, 5)
A protein deficiency can cause symptoms like flaky skin, brittle nails, fluid accumulation, loss of muscle mass and even a weakened immune system.
It’s generally recommended to get in at least 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, which translates to roughly 0.36 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. Someone who weighs 150 pounds (68 kilograms), for example, might require approximately 54 grams of protein per day. However, this amount can increase based on many factors, including age, activity level and certain conditions, such as cancer.
Healthiest Meat Substitutes
- Nuts and Seeds
- Beans and Legumes
Tempeh is a food made from fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a compact cake. Like other fermented foods, tempeh is rich in probiotics, which are a type of beneficial bacteria found in your digestive tract. In addition to being one of the best meat substitutes for protein, tempeh is also high in calcium, antioxidants and soy isoflavones that may be able to help lower cholesterol levels. (6, 7)
This meat substitute is delicious and easy to work with. It can be marinated or seasoned, then easily crumbled, sliced, sautéed or baked and added to your favorite vegan dishes. It has a slightly nutty taste but easily takes on the flavor of the other ingredients that you’re working with.
Not only is it the largest tree fruit in the world, weighing in at up to 100 pounds, but jackfruit is also jam-packed with powerful health benefits. It’s especially high in antioxidant-rich vitamin C and regularity-promoting fiber. The nutrients found in jackfruit may help enhance immunity, support digestion and improve heart health as well.
Best of all, jackfruit is easily one of the most versatile and best tasting meat substitutes available. It can be found fresh or canned with a texture that’s similar to chicken or pork, making it an excellent addition to many vegetarian or vegan dishes.
Much like tempeh, natto is another nutritious meat substitute made from soy that has been fermented, amping up its probiotic content and nutritional benefits. It’s an excellent source of protein, cramming an impressive 31 grams into just one cup. It’s also high in manganese, iron, copper and magnesium, managing to knock out over half of your daily needs in just one serving.
It’s made by soaking whole soybeans, steaming or boiling them, and then adding a strain of beneficial bacteria and allowing it to ferment. Natto has a strong smell and distinct texture and is definitely an acquired taste. In Japan, natto is a dietary staple for many and is typically seasoned and served alongside cooked rice as a traditional breakfast dish.
Lentils are a type of edible pulse that are loaded with fiber and an assortment of important micronutrients, such as folate, manganese and iron. A serving or two of lentils per day can help manage blood sugar levels, prevent constipation and keep your weight under control.
Lentils are easy to prepare and can be incorporated into a variety of dishes. They’re often paired with rice or added to soups, stews, salads or dips. They’re also available in many different forms and can be found dried, canned or even frozen.
Revered for their medicinal properties for thousands of years, mushrooms make a super nutritious addition to any diet, vegetarian or not. They’re low in calories but contain a good chunk of several important nutrients. Even more impressive is that mushrooms have been shown to have both antioxidant and antimicrobial properties in some test-tube studies. (8)
Mushrooms are one of the best meat substitutes for vegetarians because they tend to have a rich and meaty flavor that works well in veggie-based dishes. Try adding mushrooms to burgers, stews, casseroles and pasta dishes to bump up the nutritional value of your meal and provide a concentrated dose of flavor to every bite.
6. Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are high in healthy fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals, so it should come as no surprise that upping your intake can help ward off chronic disease. A recent 2017 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology even found that a higher intake of nuts was associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease. (9)
Walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, flaxseeds, chia seeds and hemp seeds are a few of the healthiest nuts and seeds that you can add to your diet — just be sure to opt for an unsalted nuts with minimal extra ingredients. Flax and chia seeds also make a great vegan egg substitute to act as a binding agent in recipes. Simply combine one tablespoon of seeds with three tablespoons of water and stir to incorporate.
7. Beans and Legumes
Legumes are officially defined as the fruit or seed of any plant from the legume family, which encompasses a wide range of vegetables like beans and peas. These nutrient-packed veggies are some of the best vegan meat substitutes available; not only do they supply a good amount of protein, but they are also rich in micronutrients that may be lacking in a vegan diet, such as iron and folate.
To take full advantage of the health benefits of legumes, it’s best to sprout them prior to consumption. Sprouting is a process that involves soaking legumes anywhere from eight to 24 hours, then straining them, and allowing them to sit and sprout. Sprouting helps boost the nutrient profile of the legumes while also cutting the content of antinutrients that can impair absorption of certain minerals.