Are processed meat-alternatives good replacements for those looking to limit or avoid animal protein?


by Tara Postnikoff

There are many meat-alternative products on the market today, with brand names like Beyond Meat, Tofurky and Boca Burger. For people looking to remove animal products from their current diet, these types of products are offered as a substitute for burgers, ground meats, deli meats and other traditional meat products.

As with conventional packaged meats, many meat-alternative products are heavily processed. Unfortunately, pre-packaged products tend to be high in sodium, preservatives and artificial flavours and thus should be eaten sparingly. For a balanced diet, choose foods that are as minimally processed as possible.

Vegetarians, vegans and those looking to reduce their intake of animal products have a variety of sources for protein that are not over-processed. Some of the options even mimic the texture of meat. Here are some suggested protein options to add to your plate in place of meat.

Plain tofu and tempeh
Both soybean based, these can easily replace chicken or fish in recipes. Tofu and tempeh (a fermented soy product) are easy to use and readily absorb flavours from the herbs and spices you add. Try using in a stir-fry or crumbling into a warm veggie bowl. Look for organic soy products to avoid GMOs. In Canada and the US, GMO products do not have to be labelled as they do in other part of the world and by looking for organic, you can identify a non GMO product.

Nutritional value:
100 grams (g) of extra-firm tofu has 10 g of protein, 3 g of carbs and 5 g of mostly mono and poly unsaturated fat. It also has small amounts of calcium and iron as well as vitamin A. A similar serving of tempeh has similar carb and fat ratios, but double the protein.

Legumes and lentils
Black beans, kidney beans, mung beans, adzuki beans, lentils and chickpeas are inexpensive and easy to prepare. They can be eaten cold or warm and added to salads, soups or pureed into dips. They also can be pressed into burger patties. 

Nutritional value:
Legumes provide about 15 g of protein per cup, and lentils about 18 g of protein per cup. Both offer around 40 g of carbs, 15 g of fibre and contain virtually no fat. Beans contain B1, folate, iron, magnesium, potassium and some calcium. Lentils contain vitamins K, B1, B3, B5, B6 and folate, as well as iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

Vegetables (especially mushrooms and broccoli)
We often overlook vegetables when we talk about protein, thinking they don’t offer much at all. However, calorie for calorie, certain veggies can actually be quite dense and offer lots of micronutrients. Mushrooms can be ground up for filler in a soup or stir-fry, or pressed into burgers. Broccoli is a great addition to a meal as a side dish and can be steamed, roasted, or enjoyed raw.

Nutritional value:
One portabella mushroom is 10% protein and contains vitamins B2, B3 and B5, plus potassium and selenium. One cup of broccoli spears offers 6 grams of protein, which rivals the same portion of rice or corn, but with roughly one-third of the calories. Broccoli contains vitamin K, vitamin C and folate, along with calcium, iron, and manganese.

Nuts and seeds
Walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, pistachios, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and chia seeds can be added to the vegan or vegetarian diet to increase healthy fats and provide an alternate source of protein. Rotating raw nuts and seeds in your diet will give you a variety of minerals and vitamins. You can enjoy nuts and seeds raw, as spreads, as toppers to a salad or stir-fry, or pulverize them in a food processor to be added to soups and burgers.

Nutritional value:
An ounce of walnuts (about 14 halves) offers over 4 g protein and nearly 2.5 g of Omega-3 fatty acids, as well as small amounts of a variety of vitamins and minerals. Three tablespoons of hemp seeds offer 10 g of protein and 2.5 g of Omega-3s, along with vitamin B1, iron, zinc, magnesium and manganese.

Whether you eat meat, fish or avoid animal proteins altogether, try focusing on eating a plant-focused diet that is as minimally processed as possible. As an added bonus, whole unprocessed foods are typically more affordable than processed artificial ones. The best nutritional practice is to eat a variety of foods throughout the week to ensure you are getting a full spectrum of nutrients.



Tara Postnikoff is a Registered Nutritional Consultant, certified Personal Trainer and triathlon/running coach in Toronto. She is an avid distance runner and triathlete, and a regular guest speaker for Running Room training programs. To learn more, visit her website at

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