Vegans and vegetarians rely on meat alternatives, such as beans, tofu and faux meats to supply certain key dietary nutrients. Non-vegetarians may also benefit their health by substituting meat alternatives for meat in some of their meals. By eating a balanced diet with a variety of meat alternatives and other healthy foods, you can get all of the essential nutrients provided by meat -- minus much of the saturated fat and salt found in many meat products.
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Protein is an important macro-nutrient and one of the major nutrients supplied by meat alternatives. Some plant-based meat alternatives that provide high amounts of protein include: soy-based veggie burgers, nuts, seeds, nutritional yeast, tempeh, legumes, edemame, soy milk, whole grains, tofu and seitan, a.k.a. wheat gluten. While it was once believed that certain plant proteins had to be eaten at the same time in order to get a "complete" protein, research has since demonstrated this to be untrue, according to PETA. If you eat dairy products, yogurt and cheese are also good sources of protein.
While meat is an excellent source of essential minerals such as iron, zinc and magnesium, these minerals are also found in abundance in the plant kingdom and in meat alternatives. Some iron-rich meat alternatives include soybeans, quinoa, tempeh, kidney beans, black beans, tempeh, veggie burgers, sunflower seeds, lentils and chickpeas. High-protein plant foods like whole grains, legumes and nuts are good sources of zinc and magnesium. If you don't consume dairy products, calcium can be obtained from almonds and fortified soy or rice milk.
B vitamins are widely present in animal products, and the meat alternatives you eat need to supply these vitamins as well. If you eat dairy products, attaining enough B vitamins should not be a problem; if you don't, it's important to make sure you get these vitamins from other vegetarian sources. B-12 in particular is difficult to find outside of the animal kingdom. You can find B-12 in some yeast extracts and in various fortified foods, however, including fortified soy milk, fortified breakfast cereals and fortified texturized vegetable protein. Beans, peas, whole grains and leafy green vegetables also provide a spectrum of B vitamins.
In addition to being lower in unhealthy ingredients such as salt and saturated fat, meat alternatives are also superior to meat in that they commonly provide dietary fiber, an important nutrient for proper digestive functioning and, possibly, for preventing heart disease and diabetes, according to MayoClinic.com. Beans and other legumes are particularly nutritious meat alternatives in terms of their fiber content. The legumes that provide the most fiber include split peas, lentils and lima beans. In addition to beans, some other fiber-rich meat alternatives include tempeh, hummus, almonds, pistachios, pecans and whole grains.