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Sharp Health News

Are meatless burgers good for you?

Aug. 12, 2019

Are meatless burgers good for you?
When plant-based burgers hit the food market, skeptics arrived in droves. The idea of recreating the taste, look and feel of beef, using natural ingredients, seemed impossible. Thanks to skilled engineering and endless trial and error, plant-based meat is changing how we view the common burger.

Today, meatless burgers such as Beyond® and Impossible® are everywhere. You’ll find them on menus from coast to coast, from mom ’n’ pop burger joints to popular fast-food chains. While their popularity is undeniable, their health benefits seem to be shrouded in confusion. Yes, plant-based burgers remove meat from the equation, but does that make them good for you? The answer: not really.

“We all know that red meat isn’t the best for us,” says Dr. Sabrina Falquier, an internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy. “It’s high in saturated fat and cholesterol, which increases the risk for heart disease. Plant-based meat does solve that problem, but it comes with its own set of disadvantages.”

Building beef, from plants
To understand the health differences between beef and plant-based meat, you must first understand the ingredients of each. Beef is mostly comprised of protein, animal fat, water and trace minerals. Plant-based meat, in general, is made of water, pea or soy protein, canola oil and refined coconut oil.

The fat in a beef burger is what poses the biggest health risk. However, most beef burgers have the luxury of being pure and natural, and can even be 100% grass fed. Plant-based burgers are created in a lab. This level of processing means added ingredients, such as salt or preservatives, which contribute to many health issues.

Fat, cholesterol and sodium, oh my
When weighing the health benefits of a plant-based burger, nutritionists hone in on three things: fat, cholesterol and sodium. In a race to good health, this is how the meats compare:

Fat and calories
Winner: Neither
8 grams saturated fat
287 calories
Plant-based meat
8 grams saturated fat
270 calories
Beef is notoriously high in fat. While Impossible® and Beyond® burgers are made purely of plant products, oils and proteins boost their saturated fat and calorie levels, putting both products in a high-fat category.

Winner: Plant-based meat
100 milligrams
Plant-based meat
0 milligrams
Plants are naturally cholesterol-free, making them a better choice for those with heart concerns, or a personal or family history of high cholesterol.

Winner: Beef
230 milligrams
Plant-based meat
370 milligrams
The processing of plant-based meat is the reason for its soaring sodium level. Yet, it’s important to note that beef, even at 230 milligrams, is not considered a low-sodium food. 

A case for plant-based
Knowing that plant-based burgers are not considered a health food doesn’t mean you should skip them altogether. The general recommendation is, as with beef burgers, to eat them in moderation. And of course, skip the fries, shakes and saucy sides.

What plant-based meat does offer is an alternative for those who want the taste of beef but don’t or can’t eat it. “If you are a vegetarian and have a long-lost craving for a burger, plant-based is a great option,” Dr. Falquier says. “Or, if you’re looking to shift your diet into more of a plant-based focus, this can be a great way to start.”

The best choice in the burger business is a non-processed meat alternative, such as grain, bean or veggie burgers. Aside from skipping the fat and cholesterol, many of these are packed with fiber, vitamins or plant protein. Loading them up with veggie toppings, such as avocados and tomatoes, add flavor and a boost of health benefits.

Saving the world, one burger at a time
The biggest advantage of plant-based meat doesn’t have a thing to do with physical health. Instead, it focuses on environmental health. Creating plant-based meat uses 99% less water, 93% less land and 46% less energy. For a food that many say tastes similar to the real deal, those are three great reasons to make the switch.

“U.S. beef consumption is four times higher than the world average,” Dr. Falquier says. “That’s not great for our health, and it’s terrible for our planet. Moving to a plant-based model is not necessarily healthier for you, but it’s the environmentally conscious thing to do.”

Looking for an alternative to your classic burger meal? Try our turkey burgers with roasted eggplant, served with a side of baked zucchini fries.

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