The popularity of the vegan diet is only growing, and that means there are new plant-based meat products popping up at the grocery store all the time. With so many different types to enjoy—from burgers and chicken nuggets to deli slices—it’s hard to resist trying them all. But how much is too much?
While it’s tempting to add them to every meal, Julieanna Hever, MS, RD, CPT, author of The Healthspan Solution and Plant-Based Nutrition (Idiot’s Guide), says there’s definitely a limit to how many times a week you should be enjoying them. Here’s exactly what you should know before buying the alt-meat replacements.
Is Plant-Based Meat Healthy?
Hever’s first response when asked if faux meat options are healthy is “compared to what?” Opposed to eating a red meat burger, some plant-based alternatives are much healthier. However, it’s tough to beat out a veggie-packed stir-fry or lentil chili when you’re comparing them to a processed, store-bought food.
With that being said, it all depends on the type of faux meat you’re buying. Some are high in saturated fats and excessive amino acids, some contain heme iron, and some aren’t much better for you than an animal-based formula, she says. Just like anything else, it’s important to look at the nutrition label and shop smart when you’re buying them to ensure you’re eating something nutritious—not junk food in disguise.
“It’s the highly-refined products that are packed with things like sugar, oil, and salt that make the processed faux-meat items less healthy than something you would make yourself at home,” Hever says.
How Often Should You Eat Plant-Based Meat Products?
Unfortunately, there’s no special number for how many times a week you can eat faux meat options. Like anything you buy in a store, Hever says to be hesitant about consuming too many processed foods. Because of that, she recommends not to base your meals around then and instead consume them during what she calls “rare and appropriate times,” like when you’re out to eat and want an Impossible Burger.
Now, don’t worry: It’s not the end of the world if you have these options a couple times a week (because, let’s be honest, they’re good and it’s fun to try new things!), but for the most part, Hever says they’re best seen as a treat for special occasions.
What to Eat Instead of Plant-Based Meat
While processed, store-bought plant-based meats should be eaten occasionally, you can make your own homemade versions from wholesome ingredients anytime you want. For instance, Hever says you can make a burger out of beans, mushrooms, oats, nuts and/or seeds, or rice. “These fit into a healthy diet and can be enjoyed daily,” she says.
You can also experiment and make your own versions of the faux meat options you see in stores. You can make fish fillets with canned artichokes, vegan lunch meat with white beans, and chicken nuggets with tofu. When you’re plant-based, there’s so much possibility right at your finger tips, and you have every excuse to play with your food until you find the things you love.