With the rising popularity of plant-based diets, meat substitution has become a real trend (even among flexitarians). However, not all foods used as meat alternatives provide you with the same nutrients as meat does!
That is why it’s important to understand not only the nutritional value of meat substitutes, but also the potential health risks of its consumption.
This article will guide you through these topics and will show you 4 nutritious substitutes for red meat!
Let’s dive in!
Is meat healthy?
Contrary to popular belief that animal protein is unnecessary food for proper nutrition, evidence suggests that it contains nutrients, which cannot be found in plant-based foods (or are found in very small amounts). Three of these micronutrients are:
- Vitamin B12 . It supports healthy DNA synthesis, red blood cell formation, and neuronal function. 
- Heme iron. This form of iron is more efficiently absorbed by the body than non-heme iron (iron found in plant foods). It plays an important role in oxygen transport, muscle metabolism, hormone synthesis, and overall cell functions. 
- Vitamin D3. This vitamin is produced by the human skin (under sun exposure) but can also be externally supplied with animal products (as often the body can’t produce enough, especially in areas of the world further from the equator). The food sources of this vitamin are only animal-based, compared to vitamin D2, which occurs in plant products. Vitamin D3 contributes to efficient calcium absorption and helps maintain bone health and calcium metabolism. 
What are the health risks of eating meat?
Scientific studies show that regular consumption of large amounts of red and processed meat could be linked to :
- Chronic kidney disease progression 
- Colorectal cancer development
- Coronary diseases
- Type 2 diabetes
- Increased overall mortality
For that reason, many people turn to plant foods that can substitute the nutritional value of meat without posing these health risks.
It is very important to consider what foods replace meat in your diet when transitioning to a more plant-based diet. Many people turn to meat substitute products such as Beyond or Impossible meat. Although these products are okay to have once in a while, they are often packed with sodium. In addition, many have the same (or more!) saturated fat compared to beef.
I always encourage patients to swap meat for whole-food plant proteins such as beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, peas, tofu and whole grains.
What foods can be substituted for meat?
- Legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds
A 2013 review paper published in the Medical Journal of Australia suggests that adequate consumption of legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds can supply you with enough non-heme iron to decrease the risk of iron deficiency anemia in vegetarians (and vegans). 
The source also emphasizes the fact that sufficient vitamin C intake is needed to enhance the absorption of non-heme iron in the gut.
- Soy products (like tofu & tempeh)
A 2016 review paper on the nutritional value of soy suggests that soyfoods are rich in high-quality proteins and healthy fats, which makes them efficient meat-substitutes.
Besides, they are high in fiber, calcium, and non-heme iron.  According to the source, moderate soyfoods consumption can be associated with a decrease in bad cholesterol, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of kidney disease.
- Fortified foods
Foods fortified with vitamins B12 and D can be great meat substitutes when it comes to supplying those two irreplaceable micronutrients. The consumption of such foods plays an important role in preventing nutrient deficiencies caused by strict meat-and dairy -excluding diets and improving the overall wellbeing of vegans and vegetarians.
However, evidence suggests that one significant downside of fortified products may be related to the overconsumption of nutrients. This raises concerns about vitamin and mineral toxicity in the long run. 
- Fish and seafood
Unless you are a strict vegetarian or vegan, you can substitute meat with fish and seafood!
Those foods are not only great sources of high-quality protein but also supply you with adequate amounts of vitamins B12, D, and heme iron. Besides, fish and seafood are rich in omega 3 fatty acids, which can balance your cholesterol profile, reduce the risk of heart disease, and support healthy cognitive function.  In fact, the American Heart Association recommends consuming 3.5 oz of non-fried fish twice per week to reduce the risk of heart disease. 
Furthermore, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Food and Chemical Toxicology suggests that the specific health benefits of substituting meat for fish vary among individuals. Yet, the study results showed that such substitution provides considerable health benefits to young women in child-bearing age and elderly men.