Are Meat Substitutes Bad For You Or What?

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.
Whether you just saw the documentary What The Health, read that Beyoncé is vegan, or vowed to eat a more plant-based diet in 2019, there's a good chance that you've considered going vegan before — or at least wondered if you could handle a vegetarian diet. There are lots of ethical reasons why people choose to go vegetarian, but for many people, giving up meat is one of the most significant challenges that comes from the lifestyle change.
Even if you consider yourself vegan or vegetarian, sometimes you just crave the texture and taste of meat. Luckily, there are tons of different substitutes out there that are made from soybeans. But you may have heard that eating too many soy-based products can lead to alarming health problems, even breast cancer. So, could opting for these processed meat substitutes actually be bad for you?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand where much of the soy panic comes from in the first place. Research has shown that soy contains estrogen-like compounds called isoflavones (genistein and daidzein are the specific names), which were once believed to interfere with hormones, cause breast cancer, and contribute to thyroid issues. For these reasons, many people have been scared of soy. But in truth, the soy you eat doesn’t contain enough isoflavones to have an impact on your health, and soy’s effect on the body is far more complex than this early research indicated. So, unless you have a soy allergy, there's really no reason to fear soy, says Taylor Wolfram, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian in Chicago.
Straight-up soy is a great form of protein for people who don’t eat meat, because it contains all the essential amino acids, as well as important nutrients, Kathy McManus, MS, RD, LDN, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital told Harvard Health Publishing. Natural soy products such as tofu, edamame, tempeh, and soy milk can be a great replacement for animal protein, she said. Technically these foods contain naturally-occurring isoflavones (for example, half a cup of soybeans contains 55 mg isoflavones), but they tend to have fewer than processed mock meat soy products.
In terms of processing, there is a spectrum, Wolfram says. "For instance, tofu and tempeh are on the less processed end of the spectrum while a soy-based burger is on the more processed end of the spectrum," she says. "It's fine to include highly processed soyfoods in one's diet but nutritionally speaking, it's best to get most of one's protein from less processed foods."
When a food is made from solely "soy protein isolates," or contains isoflavone supplements, that’s typically a sign that it’s been processed and could contain additives, according to the Mayo Clinic. Usually, you'll find concentrated isoflavones in textured vegetable proteins, protein powders, and protein bars, so it’s best to steer clear of those foods, McManus told Harvard Health Publishing.
Ultimately, if you enjoy the taste of whole soy fake meat products, and find that they satisfy your meat craving, then you should keep doing you. (If you are concerned about the amount of soy products you eat, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor or healthcare provider. They know important details about your health and can assess any real risks.) No matter your diet, it's best to eat a variety of protein sources, Wolfram says. "For vegetarians and vegans, this includes beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains and if they like them, plant-based meat substitutes," she says.
At the end of the day, remember that just because a product is marketed as "vegan," "vegetarian," "plant-based," or "sustainable," doesn't mean that it's necessarily healthier for you and your diet. And, while it might seem like everyone you know is going on a vegetarian diet for ethical reasons, you're not a bad person for eating regular meat if that's what you want.

More from Diet & Nutrition

R29 Original Series