Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?
How a processed food compares to organic, grass-fed meat.
The question is totally valid.
Why would it make sense to eat something highly processed, made to look, taste, and even sound like meat (think that sizzle on the grill...)? Surely the actual thing must be healthier than the look-alike.
Even granting the fact that the plant-based meat alternatives are better for the environment and are thus a better choice for stewarding the planet, what about human health? Are we choosing planetary health over our own individual health?
One Stanford researcher had a similar thought.
It just doesn’t seem like something highly processed could be a better option.... But, why not put this question to the test? (That’s just what he and his team did.)
In the meticulously designed SWAP-MEAT trial, Stanford professor and researcher Dr. Christopher Gardner found that even highly processed plant-based “meat” alternatives are better for human health than actual meat. What’s more, Gardner didn’t put plant-based alternatives up against things like low-quality bacon, salami, and deli meats. He found organic, grass-fed sources of high-quality meats to feed participants, making sure he put the best versions of either dietary intervention to the test.
SWAP-MEAT Summary of Findings
In this randomized control crossover trial (meaning that all participants participated in both “sides”—eating plant-based meats during one phase and actual meats during the other), participants eating the organic, grass-fed meat consistently had greater health risk factors while those eating the plant-based meat alternatives had lower levels of risk in those same areas.
For instance, when either group at meat, they had higher LDL cholesterol (LDL cholesterol was lower when they ate the plant-based alternatives). When either group ate meat, they had higher levels of TMAO (a risk factor for immune function, inflammation, and heart and vascular disease; our microbiome makes this when we eat meat). Finally, everyone lost some weight on the plant-based alternatives. That consistency is remarkable. While there is certainly more to be said, these are more than enough to get our attention!
So, what made the difference? In large part three things.
The plant-based alternatives had:
Less saturated fat
More plant protein
Keep in mind that it’s not just what’s there or not there—it’s how what’s there or not there affects the body. (For instance, saturated fat has been shown to increase risk of heart disease, among other dangers, while both fiber and plant protein have been shown to lower cholesterol, among other benefits.)
Fascinatingly, the group who first ate the plant-based meat alternatives even had a positive carryover effect: when they started eating the organic, grass-fed meat during the second phase of the trial, their levels of TMAO were lower than the other group had during the first phase when eating the same organic, grass-fed meat. Not only did the plant-based alternatives produce better health outcomes for both groups across the board, but the plants even lessened some of the deleterious effects of the meat for that group initially during the second phase.
Should I Stock Up My Fridge?
Plant-based meat alternatives are a great option for cutting back on meat consumption. To be clear, plant-based meat alternatives are not a better option than whole plant food sources like beans, lentils, and minimally processed foods like tofu and tempeh. Eating more whole plants is always going to be ideal.
The point here is that these foods are both convenient and familiar while also being healthier for humans and the planet than the best quality meats out there. These products can be a terrific way to help people transition to a plant-predominant or plant-exclusive way of eating. Moreover, they can be a great way to invite your omnivorous friends into your plant-based lifestyle or enable you to take part in the cookout, tailgate, you name it (BYOBurger).
In short, the findings from the SWAP-MEAT trial show us that we don’t need to fear these products. While Dr. Gardner does not advocate relying upon these daily in the long term—again, whole plant foods are still a better option—he does affirm that they are a better choice than the meat they are intended to replace.
Fear not. Go enjoy a plant-based burger. It’ll taste good and do better for both you and the planet.
Notes and Resources:
 For a super interesting—and amusing—dive into the planetary impact of plant-based meat alternatives vs. actual meat see Mark Rober’s video “Feeding Bill Gates a Fake Burger (to save the world)”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k-V3ESHcfA.
 Stands for “The Study With Appetizing Plantfood-Meat Eating Alternatives Trial.” See published paper on PubMed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32780794/.
 Dr. Christopher Gardner discusses this trial and its findings with Simon Hill on The Proof podcast ep. 167 (https://theproof.com/is-plant-based-meat-healthy-with-christopher-gardner-phd/) and with Rich Roll on the Rich Roll podcast ep. 774 (https://www.richroll.com/podcast/christopher-gardner-774/).