Easily one of the biggest food trends of 2019, plant-based meat products have grown even more mainstream in 2020. Alternative burger patties are stocked in the freezer cases of most grocery stores, and fast-food chains from Burger King to White Castle have added meatless meat to their menus.
It's obviously trendy, but is it healthy for dancers?
Dance Magazine looked beyond the hype and into the health implications of adding popular products like Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger to your diet.
What's in Meatless Meat?
Mimicking the taste and texture of animal-based meat is tricky. According to a special report in the Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, "alternative-meat manufacturers extract proteins and fats from plants and mix them together in percentages that match those of animal meat." The result is a highly processed product.
You may see main ingredients like wheat protein, soy protein or pea protein, says Rachel Fine, dietitian nutritionist and founder of To The Pointe Nutrition. And brands like Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger often contain a very trendy ingredient: coconut oil. "Despite the health halo surrounding this oil, the American Heart Association has declared the saturated fat content in coconut oil to be a concern for long-term heart health," she says. "While this isn't a huge deal once in a while, we want to make sure dancers aren't turning to these products too often throughout their week."
A Healthy Alternative to Beef?
Plant-based burgers are largely marketed as an alternative to traditional beef burgers, which often get a bad rap because they're high in saturated fat. "The American Heart Association has sufficient research to point to health effects of saturated fat on our long-term heart health and cholesterol," says Fine. But, that doesn't mean dancers need to avoid beef by any stretch. "Red meat can be incorporated as part of a balanced meal plan that includes a large variety of plant-based foods," she says, and it's a great source of protein and iron, which many dancers may not have enough of. Calcium, vitamin D, vitamin B12, zinc and omega-3 fatty acids are also naturally occurring in animal-based proteins.
If you glance at the nutrition facts for beef burgers and those for some of the most popular plant-based meat brands, you won't find any glaring differences in the overall fat or calorie content. (Four ounces of 80% lean raw beef is 287 calories versus 250 calories for a four-ounce Beyond Burger, for instance.) The difference is negligible in the grand scheme of your diet. There's one element worth noting, though: Many plant-based meats run far higher in sodium than beef.
Meatless meats do score points for their global impact. "Food production is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, especially livestock farming," says Fine. Impossible Burger, for instance, cites that its production process uses 75% less water, creates 87% less greenhouse gases, and uses 95% less land than that of a beef burger.
An Aura of Health
Like any diet trend, Fine mentions that plant-based meats are often surrounded by an "aura of health." "They're viewed as being superior and 'cleaner.' "—and buying into that idea can affect your choices. "Someone might feel like they're making a healthier decision, so they're going to eat it more often than they ever would have eaten real beef burgers," she says. Choosing the real deal is also more likely to satisfy your taste buds, she adds.
Don't Forget These Foods
Don't let trendy meat alternatives distract you from the variety of plant foods that can also serve as great vegetarian meals, says Fine. She mentions legumes, ancient grains, root vegetables, nuts and seeds, which can all play an important role in fueling performers. And veggie-based burgers (ones that aren't trying to imitate the taste and texture of beef) are also smart options. Though they may be a bit high in sodium, says Fine, she touts Dr. Praeger's for its use of heart-healthy avocado oil, and Gardenburger for its emphasis on whole food sources like brown rice, mushrooms, bulgar and oats.
Still curious about plant-based burgers? "If someone is interested in trying it, why not?" But, warns Fine, "don't go into it thinking that it's a healthy alternative, because it's not."