How to Choose the Best Meat and Dairy Substitutes

These days meat is being dropped from many dinner plates like a hot potato, making way for more plant-based options. This movement towards more meatless meals, called plant-forward or plant-based eating, takes into account your health and that of the planet.

David Marcu

Whole plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses and nuts and seeds, are not only packed with nutrients like vitamins and minerals and fiber but also a variety of phytochemicals (phyto meaning plant). These compounds offer assorted benefits such as antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action, possibly fending off ailments like heart disease, Alzheimer’s and certain cancers, making these whole foods even more important as we age. Eating less meat is also linked to a reduced likelihood of developing diseases such as colon cancer, another disease where rates climb as we get older.

These plant-based choices also supply benefits for planetary health. Livestock production, especially factory farming, is believed to be a leading contributor to climate change while plant options such as pulses, like dried peas, and beans, have a low carbon footprint and actually add nutrients back to the soil.

Dairy and Meat Substitutes

Nowadays the variety of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives is growing by leaps and bounds. But Dr. David Katz of Yale University’s Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center, and current president of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine, urges caution when making your selections. He says, “Plants will generally be providing fiber, more satiety for the calories consumed and a vast array of beneficial micronutrients. But it really depends: are these substitutes actually plants, or highly processed concoctions?”

For example, a check of the cream cheese substitutes on the market with their long lists of ingredients shows them to be ultra-processed foods, products containing substances not normally found in dishes cooked from scratch in your kitchen. Whether from vegetarian, vegan or from animal sources, ultra-processed foods are best avoided. Instead why not whip up your own vegan cream cheese or try a vegan substitute for parmesan cheese, such as nutritional yeast?

Meat substitutes like vegetarian bacon and bologna also entice meat lovers. But at the other end of the spectrum are products bearing no resemblance to meat. Whatever your preference, it’s key to make choices containing adequate amounts of protein. “You can get plenty of protein from well-chosen plant foods, but again, the care with which those choices are made may matter especially in older adults potentially prone to sarcopenia [loss of lean body mass],” says Dr. Katz.

A vegetable patty, for instance, may contain little protein making it more of a side dish rather than a meat substitute. For nutrient-packed choices, check the Nutrition Facts box and ingredient lists. If the substitutes are loaded with sodium, unhealthy fats and a lengthy list of additives, or if they’re short on fiber and protein, give them a pass and go for those containing mainly whole grains, pulses, soy and nuts or seeds.

Milk Substitutes

With milk substitutes, consider which nutrients you’re looking for. For calcium-rich alternatives, select calcium-fortified options which have similar amounts as cow’s milk. As for protein content of non-dairy alternatives, choices such as rice or almond milk may be low in this nutrient while soy milk ranks at the top. Hemp and coconut milk surpass the others in fat content but hemp milk supplies heart-healthy fats while coconut milk offers more LDL-raising saturated fat. Be sure to read labels to avoid those with copious amounts of added sugar to boost taste appeal.

You can also make your own milk substitutes to keep unwanted sugars or additives to a minimum. Here are three recipes for milk substitutes that we particularly like:

1. Almond Milk from The Kitchn

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A quick go-to recipe for simple almond milk, flavored with a touch of sweetener such as honey, agave or maple syrup.


The Kitchn

2. Vanilla-Cinnamon Almond Milk from Oh She Glows

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This almond milk gets a flavorful boost with the addition of anti-inflammatory cinnamon, Medjool dates and a whole vanilla bean.


Oh She Glows

3. Cashew Milk from Cookie and Kate

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Cashews make the creamiest nut milk and they’re loaded with trace minerals like copper, magnesium and calcium.


Cookie and Kate

Editor’s note: A note of caution for soy milk users. If you’ve been diagnosed with estrogen-positive breast cancer and taking the drug Tamoxifen, the verdict on the safety of consuming soy milk regularly, due to its phytoestrogens – plant estrogens, is not yet in.

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