David Sirota wrote an article that suggests that the vegetarian products that mimic meat products undermine vegetarianism by glorifying the consumption of meat. I had to laugh because I honestly couldn’t imagine Tofurkey glorifying anything. Nor do I think that rice milk glorifies cow’s milk or that a tofu scramble glorifies eggs. Yet the use of these foods does raise two important nutrition-related questions: What kind of diet is truly healthy for a human being, and how can we help people find satisfaction and delight from a truly healthy diet?
Many vegetarians depend heavily on the soy fake meats and “cheezes” because they are worried about getting enough protein in their diet. In reality, you don’t need to eat fake meat or cheeze to get enough protein. It’s practically impossible to find real cases of protein deficiency in people who were getting enough calories from any reasonable plant-based diet. To find cases of pure protein deficiency, you have to look at people who have been fed nothing but glucose intravenously, or people who have a digestive or metabolic disease, or babies who were fed some bizarre substitute for breast milk.
Plants provide all of the nutrients that are essential for human nutrition, except for vitamin D and vitamin B12. Your body makes its own supply of vitamin D if you go out in the sunshine, and vitamin B12 comes from bacteria. So there’s no nutritional need to include animal-based food in the diet. On the contrary, the less animal-based food a population eats, the lower its rates of death from heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic diseases tend to be.
So what about the refined plant-based foods that resemble animal foods? Do they pose the same health threats as real animal-based foods? The answer is a bit complicated. The health threats that they could pose depend on how closely they resemble the animal-based foods they replace.
Animal-based foods contain fat and cholesterol but no fiber. No vegan products contain any cholesterol, but some of them do contain a lot of fat and little or no fiber. Thus, they could promote weight gain and high cholesterol levels. Potato chips are vegan; but because of all that fat and salt, they’re almost as bad for you as pork rinds.
Animal-based foods contain far more protein than you need. This excess protein puts a strain on the liver and kidneys. The “high-quality” protein in dairy products, in particular, also causes the liver to release a powerful growth hormone (IGF-1) that promotes the growth of cancers. Huge servings of soy protein also promote the secretion of IGF-1, but to a lesser extent than dairy products do.
The proteins in animal-based foods are similar to but not exactly like the proteins in the human body. If they find their way into the bloodstream before they are completely broken down, they may cause the immune system to produce antibodies that go on to attack the body’s own tissues. A switch to a plant-based diet can dramatically reduce this risk. However, some of the fake animal products are based on wheat gluten, which can cause autoimmune problems in a small percentage of the population. For this reason, people with celiac disease or other wheat sensitivity cannot eat seitan.
Real meats and cheeses are high in fat but devoid of starch. The fake stuff also tends to be high in fat and low in starch. All fats are fattening, and some of the fats from plant sources are particularly powerful promoters of cancer. The plant-based diets that are truly good for human health are high in fiber and starch and low in fat.
Animals have hormones that are very much like our own. When people eat animal foods, they get a dose of these hormones, even if the animals were raised organically. Plants have different hormones. Some plants contain phytoestrogens, which are substances that have some sort of effect on estrogen receptors. However, some of the phytoestrogens are estrogen blockers or weak estrogens that compete with the body’s natural estrogens, thus decreasing the effects that our native estrogen has on our tissues.
Animals absorb toxins from their environment and store them in their fatty tissue. That’s why it’s good to eat “low on the food chain.” The processed fake meats and cheezes are low on the food chain, but you may have to consider what kinds of additives are in them.
Many people advocate the use of the fake meats and cheezes sort of as training wheels to help people adjust to a plant-based diet. My concern with that approach is that these foods can be unsatisfying because they don’t necessarily taste like the real thing. Rather than serving a food that is a dim echo of something else, why not serve something that can stand on its own? Why eat an unsatisfying soy patty when you could eat a genuine bean burrito?
I use a little bit of tofu or soy milk now and then. The “fake meat” that I use extensively is mushrooms and nutritional yeast. I make a garlicky low-fat mushroom gravy and serve it over huge mounds of mashed potatoes. I add either mushrooms or nutritional yeast to hearty stews, and nobody cares that I didn’t use a hambone.