I get this question a lot so I thought I’d address it here: if you are following a whole-foods plant-based (WFPB) vegan diet, is it OK to eat some fake animal products, like fake chicken, fake cheese, or fake ice cream?
Let’s start with the good:
Meat substitutes contain zero cholesterol, no animal fat, no animal protein. Just by virtue of what they do not contain, they are leaps and bounds healthier than actual animal flesh.
A study on low-carb diets found that those following the traditional Atkins style of eating (high animal fat and protein and low plant-foods) raised their risk of all-cause mortality, while those following what was known as the “Eco-Atkins” Diet — a plant-based low-carb diet that uses lots of tofu but also plenty of meat substitutes — showed a lower risk of all-cause mortality. (SOURCE)
To me that study is actually pretty shocking. It suggests that in many ways, health can come just from the absence of animal products, almost regardless of what is substituted. Compared to the baseline American, who eats their fair share of meat and dairy, those who double down (Atkins) do way worse, and those who cut that stuff out and replace it with a processed meat substitute with no fiber and potentially little other nutrients (Eco-Atkins based on meat substitutes) do better.
So, plant-based meat substitutes are better for you than meat, and can be a part of a healthy diet. But wait…
As I just mentioned, most meat substitutes are still not as packed with nutrients as whole plant foods. Which brings up a good point — they are technically not whole plant foods. They surely are made using plants, but they are indeed a processed food. Fake chicken tenders don’t grow on any trees I’ve seen.
Therefore by many people’s standards they are absolutely NOT OK on a whole-foods plant-based diet.
Here’s where I disagree.
1. They taste great. And this is incredibly important for people transitioning to a vegan diet. The taste is undeniable, and my family’s favorites from Gardein pass muster with current meat eaters and vegans alike. Finding tasty animal product alternatives is important to health.
2. They are better for the environment. Growing plants for human consumption is always more efficient than growing them to feed to an animal to then eat. It’s just thermodynamics. So while the main thrust of a WFPB diet is health, we cannot deny the immense ecological health benefits of a meat substitute versus actual meat. Strictly from an environmental perspective I am a big fan of using meat substitutes. (Watch Cowspiracy for more)
3. They are infinitely better for the animals. This one is obvious.
So with those three reasons, I am 100% comfortable with them making up a portion of your WFPB diet. Is following a WFPB diet as simple as taking a Standard American Diet and swapping in meat substitutes for the meat, dairy subs for the dairy, etc?
Of course not! Removing chicken from your diet, for example, and adding in black beans in its place is a far better choice than adding in Gardein Chick’n. But adding the Gardein is far better than keeping the actual bird. It’s a hierarchy, and whole plant-foods always win, but don’t discount the role that substitutes play.
And for those most concerned with their health above all else, I think the Eco-Atkins case study should be comforting. As long as the animal products are off the plate, you are doing ok. We can always strive for perfection, but we cannot demand it of ourselves, and sometimes a good fake-chicken sandwich can be satisfying — especially to those who are new to this lifestyle!
Embrace the substitutes and use appropriately.
Again, this isn’t to say that your job is done by simply swapping substitutes for the real deal. But for the times you are jonesing, or you have a newly vegan friend, I would highly recommend the following products that all taste great and can fool your meat-eating friends:
- Gardein Chik’n, Fish Fillets, and Burgers (sold at Target and Whole Foods)
- Beyond Meat Beast Burger (more protein than beef)
- Coconut Bliss Ice Cream and coconut yogurt
- Almond Dream Ice Cream
- Any plant-based milk (almond, soy, coconut, hemp, rice)
- Tofurky Deli Slices and Brats