Plant-Based Diets & Meatless Alternatives on the Rise: A Naturopathic Doctor’s Take

Plant-based diets have been increasing in popularity as research shows its potential health benefits in favorably altering metabolic parameters, such as body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, blood sugar, hemoglobin A1C, blood lipid levels, and more. While including more ‘plants’ into your diet (vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains) is undoubtedly a healthy step for someone who currently follows a standard American diet, I suggest some drawbacks to avoiding animal products and incorporating meat alternative products into your diet.

Fatty Acids in Animal Products

Research conducted on plant-based diets shows improvements in those metabolic parameters I mentioned, because conventional animal products are avoided. Conventional (grain-fed) animal products (red meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, such as arachidonic acid, and lower levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids are essential fats that have strong anti-inflammatory and favorable metabolic effects. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t consuming enough omega-3 fats, since they’re found in fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds, dark leafy greens, and grass-fed/pasture-raised red meats and eggs. The standard American diet typically contains ten to twenty times the amount of omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats.1 The ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 should be closer to 1:1.1 When we’re eating much more omega-6 than omega-3 fats, this pushes various inflammatory biochemical pathways in our bodies. Additionally, conventionally-raised animal products (compared to grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products) contain lower levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.2

The harmful effects of consuming animal products cannot be generalized to include all animal products, or to hone in on the saturated fat content. These other variables (high levels of omega-6 fats, and lower levels of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) have been shown to be implicated in metabolic diseases, and can be modified when the animals are grass-fed or pasture-raised, versus grain-fed.

Some Implications of ‘Plant-Based’ Diets

I often see people who adopt ‘plant-based’ diets are eating a lot of what I consider to be ‘junky’ products that are high in refined carbohydrates and vegetable oils. When avoiding animal products in one’s diet, there seems to be a natural tendency to consume more grains, starches, and legumes. This would not be ideal for most people, since some higher carbohydrate foods (especially ones that are lower in fiber) would unfavorably alter our blood glucose metabolism, insulin sensitivity, and the gut microbiome. Also, a diet higher in grains, starches, and legumes is not ideal for those with autoimmune disease, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), diabetes/pre-diabetes, or sensitivities to gluten, soy, or legumes.

Plant-based diets can potentially be very healthy if an emphasis is placed on vegetables; however, I would include at least some sources of grass-fed or pasture-raised animal products, as well as wild-caught, low-contaminant fatty fish (such as wild-caught salmon or sardines), to maximize nutritional benefit. In other words, eating more ‘plants’ (vegetables and low-sugar fruits) is a healthy step for almost anyone, I don’t recommend eliminating all animal products from our diets, because they provide us with essential nutrients that are difficult to find elsewhere, such as…

  • B Vitamins, such as Folate, B12, and B6
  • Heme Iron
  • Choline
  • Specific Proteins
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids
  • Zinc

My Take on Meat Alternatives

Possibly in response to the increasing popularity of plant-based diets, ‘plant-based’ meat alternatives have been on the rise. From what I’ve seen, many plant-based meat alternatives are very similar in their ingredients, so I’m going to focus on what seems to be the most popular brand – Beyond Meat.

The macronutrients (total carbohydrate, protein, and fat) are similar to that of beef. The issue lies in the micronutrients. Plants, in general, have plenty of healthy micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients; however, some of the plant-based ingredients in the Beyond Meat ‘beef’ (pea & mung bean protein, methylcellulose, and potato starch) are processed, extracted, and not whole, so the micronutrient status is likely low. The Beyond Meat beef contains some iron, but it’s non-heme iron (versus easily absorbed heme iron from animal products), which is difficult to absorb without any vitamin C. Also, the main oil used in Beyond Meat products is refined canola oil (a vegetable oil), most of which is genetically modified, and it’s high in omega-6 fatty acids (which we don’t need more of in our diets). Additionally, the canola oil and pea protein isolate are likely to contain the herbicide glyphosate (RoundUp). I usually recommend strictly limiting or avoiding vegetable oils, because we usually get enough omega-6 fatty acids from other sources in our diet, and excess omega-6 contributes to inflammation (as explained above). Just because something is ‘plant-based,’ doesn’t make it healthy.

What Does Dr. Alex Eat?

While I agree with the recommendation to avoid conventional animal products, I think we are doing ourselves a nutritional disservice by avoiding organic, pasture-raised or grass-fed animal products, and wild-caught, low-mercury and low-contaminant fatty fish.

High-Quality Animal Products that Provide Unparalleled Nutrition, to Consume in Moderation:

  • Organic, 100% Grass-Fed or Pasture-Raised Beef
  • Pastured Chicken Liver
  • Pasture-Raised Eggs
  • Wild-Caught Salmon
  • Wild-Caught Sardines
  • Organic Poultry
  • Organic, Grass-Fed/Pasture-Raised Ghee or Butter
  • Oysters


My Final Tip

Include more REAL plant-based foods into your diet, like vegetables (leafy greens, cruciferous, and some starchy) and low-sugar fruits. An easy way to add more organic dark leafy green vegetables to your diet is through a high-quality, organic greens powder to add to protein shakes and smoothies. You can contact me if you’d like specific recommendations! These types of real plant foods contain abundant micronutrients – vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and other phytonutrients!

Would you like more specific guidance on what to eat? I’d love to create your personalized meal plans targeted to your health concerns, age, gender, and lifestyle. I’ll help you take charge of your health! Schedule a free call HERE so we can get acquainted!

References

1. Sheppard, K.W., and Cheatham, C.L. Omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid intake of children and older adults in the U.S.: dietary intake in comparison to current dietary recommendations and the Healthy Eating Index. Lipids in Health and Disease. (2018);17(43).

2. Daley, C.A., Abbott, A., Doyle, P.S., et. al. A review of fatty acid profiles and antioxidant content in grass-fed and grain-fed beef. Nutrition Journal. (2010);9(10).

Published by Dr. Alexandra Giuffre

Hello! I’m Dr. Alexandra Giuffre, ND, CNS, CDN (Dr. Alex!). I offer virtual Naturopathic Wellness Consultations. I work with individuals who are either ready to begin, or restructure their healing journey. With my training in clinical science, evidence-based medicine, and natural, holistic therapies, I work with individuals to create a personalized healing plan that is complementary to their current medical care.

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