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close-up photo of a plant-based burger on a bun topped with assorted vegetables
Diets high in red meat are associated with many health problems, such as chronic inflammation, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and premature death. While those risks may be enough to keep you from digging into a juicy burger or steak, they may not stop your craving for meaty textures on the plate.
Plant-based burgers or steaks (now being featured in grocery stores, vegan food shops and restaurants) might fill the bill, if you keep some caveats in mind.
Plant-based meat alternatives (PBMAs) have been around for decades. They’re made of flours, concentrates, or isolates (protein drawn from plants) that come from such foods as soybeans, black beans, mushrooms, or whole grains.
PBMAs (such as black bean burgers or tofu steaks) don’t always look or taste like red meat, but they may provide enough flavor and texture to satisfy the sensory experience you want in a meal.
They may also have a few health perks: they typically contain less total and saturated fat and cholesterol than red meat, and they may be rich in protein and fiber.
The newest generation of PBMAs (such as those from Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods) is engineered to replicate the taste and texture of red meat.
The products — made from purified soy or pea protein — are thick and savory. They smell, taste, and look like meat, with pink centers that ooze juice when cooked. But they’re usually lower in total and saturated fat and cholesterol than the real thing.
Also, they contain about the same amount of protein as red meat and are fortified with vitamins — including B12, which is often missing in plants.
All PBMAs can help you reduce red meat in your diet. But note the following caveats.
PBMAs are processed foods. They may be minimally processed, such as tofu steaks, or ultra-processed, such as newer PBMAs. Ultra-processed foods contain ingredients that were changed dramatically from their original plant forms. Also, they can include lots of salt, oil, sugar, flavoring, and preservatives, which (in high amounts) increase risks for chronic diseases (such as heart disease, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and cancer), chronic inflammation, and premature death.
PBMA fat content varies. Some newer PBMAs are higher in saturated fat than traditional PBMAs, and not that different from red meat.
Some PBMAs have extra iron. Some PBMAs from Impossible Foods contain heme iron. Heme is an iron-containing molecule found naturally in animal foods, especially red meat. The heme in Impossible Foods is genetically engineered from soy roots. “Iron is important for body function. But our research has shown that too much heme iron in the diet is associated with increased risks for diabetes, especially in older adults,” says Dr. Frank Hu, the Frederick J. Stare Professor and Chair of the Department of Nutrition and Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
80% lean ground beef (4 ounces)
Beyond Burger Plant-based Patty (4 ounces)
Impossible Burger Patty (4 ounces)
Amy’s Organic California Veggie Burger (2.5 ounces)
Giant brand portabella mushroom (1 whole cap)

Source: USDA and manufacturer websites.
Despite the potential risks of PBMAs, they may have a place in your diet. “I think it’s okay to include PBMAs as a replacement for red meat. How often you eat them is still a question. A couple of times per week might be fine,” Dr. Hu says.
Why don’t we have definitive answers as to whether diets emphasizing PBMAs are healthier than diets rich in red meat? “While many studies that have shown that there are health benefits to replacing red meat with minimally processed plant foods, very few studies so far have compared eating red meat with eating PBMAs. Some recent evidence has been encouraging. But at this point, we don’t know how PBMAs will influence health long-term,” Dr. Hu explains.
Until we have more answers about the long-term effects of PBMAs, eat them only in moderation, and go for the ones with the fewest ingredients and lowest levels of salt and saturated fat. Don’t pair them with unhealthy foods, like French fries, soda, or refined grains (white bread or buns).
And if PBMAs with heme are on the menu (look for an ingredient called soy leghemoglobin), reduce other sources of heme (especially meat) in your diet.
As for other substitutes for red meat, actual plants — vegetables and legumes — are great options. Both are low in calories, they have little or no fat, and they’re rich in vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that fight free radicals (molecules that damage cells). Legumes (beans, lentils) are also excellent sources of protein. These options cost a lot less than red meat or PBMAs, too.
For example, for burger alternatives, try a large portabella mushroom cap; thick (three-inch) slices of eggplant, cut crosswise (from side to side); or homemade bean burgers (made of sturdy beans such as chickpeas or black beans).
For steak alternatives, you can use thick slices of eggplant cut lengthwise (from root to stem) or slices of a large head of cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, or romanesco (an unusual-looking broccoli with a mild flavor).
It’s okay to roast or grill plant steaks and burgers, and even get grill marks on them. “Just don’t burn them. You want to maintain their nutrient content,” Dr. Hu says.
To flavor them, brush them with a marinade made of your favorite spices and a healthy oil (such as olive oil) before grilling or roasting them. Avoid topping them with salty, sugary, or creamy sauces, but do go for healthy versions of the toppings you like on burgers (such as tomato, onion, and mustard) or steaks (such as sautéed mushrooms on a cauliflower steak).
For generally healthy people, red meat doesn’t have to be off the menu entirely, “And it’s especially important to minimize processed red meat like bacon, hot dogs, and sausages, particularly if you have or you’re at high risk for diabetes, heart disease, cancer, or cognitive decline,” Dr. Hu says. “With the many steak and burger alternatives available, hopefully, you’ll find other meals to enjoy.”
Image: © SimpleImages/Getty Images
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