Over the last decade, there has been a significant rise in people increasing their plant-based product consumption and/or adopting a plant-based diet. Data collected by The Vegan Society found that 20% of Brits reduced their meat consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic (1). Out of those who reduced their meat consumption, 43% chose to do so because of health, environmental or ethical concerns. This blog post will focus on meat versus plant-based food sources from a ‘health’ perspective. Those people found to be reducing their meat consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic have been sampling plant-based alternatives, the most popular being almond milk (42%), meat alternatives such as vegan sausages and burgers (38%), soya milk (36%) and pulses such as lentils and chickpeas (34%). This blog will also look at the processed plant-based alternatives (including meat alternatives e.g. burgers and sausages) versus plant-based whole foods (e.g. nuts, seeds and beans) (1).
‘Plant-based diet’ – is a term that can encompass any diet that focuses on the intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds whilst reducing your meat intake. This can range from ‘veganism’, which is the complete exclusion of any animal products, to ‘vegetarianism’ which is the exclusion of any meat products or to ‘flexitarianism, a mainly plant-based diet with the occasional inclusion of meat, dairy and eggs.
‘Western diet’ – is a term used to describe a diet rich in processed and refined foods with high sugars, salt, and fat contents and protein from red and processed meat.
When discussing meat alternatives, these tend to be split into two categories; plant-based whole foods and processed non-meat alternatives. Whole foods include nuts, beans, seeds and pulses, whereas processed non-meat alternatives would include processed meat-free sausages, burgers, ‘chicken’ pieces etc.
The current recommendations from Public Health England as part of their Eatwell Guide for protein sources is to: eat more beans and pulses, two portions of sustainably sourced fish per week, one of which is oily. Eat less red and processed meat (2).
Protein is required for the maintenance, growth and repair of muscles, bones, tendons and hair. Proteins are made up of amino acids (amino acids are basically the building blocks), there are nine essential amino acids that the body cannot produce and therefore we must get them from our diets. Previously, meat would have been the main protein source in western diets, but with the shift to plant-based diets, other foods are becoming a significant protein source.
Dietary protein and resistance exercise both increase muscle protein synthesis (thought to be linked to muscle growth and repair). However, the muscle protein synthesis response to dietary protein has been shown to depend, among other things (3), on the amino acid composition of the protein source being ingested. The most important amino acids for stimulating muscle protein synthesis are essential amino acids (4). These are abundant in animal protein sources, but not so much in plant protein sources.
There are two types of protein; incomplete and complete proteins. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids, complete proteins can be found in animal-based products such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy and in some plant-based sources including; soy, quinoa and chia. Incomplete proteins contain some but not all the nine essential amino acids, generally, foods that make up a whole food plant-based diet contain incomplete proteins, for example, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes. Therefore, if you are consuming a whole food plant-based diet it is advised that you consume a variety of nuts, seeds, grains and legumes to ensure you are getting all the essential amino acids required by the body.
If you are consuming processed meat alternatives on a daily basis it is important to consider the protein content, often the meat-free alternative can be lower in protein than its meat counterpart, and if you are not also consuming a variety of nuts, seeds, grains and legumes in addition, you may not be getting enough protein.
Protein is not the only nutrient to consider in the meat versus no meat debate; we must consider other nutrients when making comparisons. For example, some meat products can be higher in calories, fat and salt and lower in fibre than plant-based whole foods, e.g. swapping beef mince for lentils and beans in chilli. However, if we compare processed meat-free alternatives, these can have the same or higher levels of calories, salt and fat than their meat counterpart. This is because manufacturers often add in salt and fat as well as flavours and preservatives to match meat-based products on flavour and texture. So even though there is the perception that meat-free products are healthier, it is not always the case. It is important to be aware of labelling on processed meat-free products. The image shows the nutritional information taken from a meat-free burger product versus a standard beef burger (both approximately 100G). The standard beef burger is lower across all five components.
A diet rich in plant-based whole foods could potentially be a tool to help prevent certain cancers, obesity and diabetes in comparison to a Western diet (5), however, if you are consuming a meat-free and/or animal-product free diet you must also consider vitamins and minerals (refer to the previously written article on this). Some vitamins and minerals are found only in animal products or fortified plant-based products. If you are significantly reducing your meat and animal product consumption, then you must ensure you are meeting your vitamin and mineral needs. Contact a registered nutritionist or dietician for support if you are concerned.
Key take-home points
If you eat meat it is important to follow the Eat Well plate guidelines and their recommendation on meat consumption and try to also include a wide variety of whole plant-based foods to ensure you are getting a healthy balanced diet.
If you are following a plant-based diet it is possible to meet your daily protein requirement without protein supplementation.
Whole plant-based foods are generally high in fibre, so consuming a variety of whole plant-based foods will also help you to meet your daily fibre goal (30g per day).
If you are trying to reduce or eliminate meat from your diet, swap meat and meat products with plant-based whole foods where possible instead of using processed meat-free alternatives.
If you are frequently using processed meat or meat-free alternatives, read the labels to ensure the product isn’t high in salt, fat and calories.
If you are following a meat/animal product free diet then consider your vitamin and mineral intake.
This article was written by Sian Law. Sian has an MSC in Food Science, Nutrition and Health, and a BSC in Biochemistry. Sian has spent the last 6 years working in the food industry, specifically within infant formula and meat.
(1) Vegan Society Statistics. [online] Available at: https://www.vegansociety.com/whats-new/news/1-5-brits-cut-down-meat-consumption-during-covid-19-pandemic [Accessed 19 May 2021].
(2) Eat Well Guidelines [online] Available at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-eatwell-guide [Accessed 19 May 2021].
(3) Stokes T, et al. Recent Perspectives Regarding the Role of Dietary Protein for the Promotion of Muscle Hypertrophy with Resistance Exercise Training. Nutrients. 2018
(4) Volpi E, et al. Essential amino acids are primarily responsible for the amino acid stimulation of muscle protein anabolism in healthy elderly adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003
(5) Dinu M, et al. Vegetarian, vegan diets and multiple health outcomes: A systematic review with meta-analysis of observational studies. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2017