What You Don't Know About Meat (+ 5 Healthy Plant-Based Meat Alternatives)

January 12, 2020

It’s no secret that I’m not a meat eater. Anyone who knows me, both personally and professionally, is well aware that I rarely eat any animal products and haven’t eaten poultry or red meat since I was 13 years old. Instead, I fill my diet with vegetables, fruits, and many whole food plant-based meat alternatives, such as legumes and nuts. But you may be surprised to learn why I originally choose not to eat meat. In fact, I often receive many questions around the topic. And my answers are always the same:

“While I love animals, no, my reason for eliminating meat was not originally based on an animal rights or ethical decision.”

“No, it’s not because I’m 100 percent against the consumption of meat, although I do believe that plants offer the best health benefits and should be the highlight of your plate.”

Quite truthfully, it’s because I discovered that I am unable to properly digest meat. And that simple fact resulted in years of both physical and emotional discomfort that I couldn’t explain. When I realized that my inability to digest meat well was the root cause of many of my health concerns, the decision to switch to a mostly plant-based diet filled with whole food plant-based meat alternatives was an easy one.

Once I began to fully immerse myself in learning the health benefits of eating a plant-based diet, my decision to focus on consuming plants as a personal lifestyle choice was validated. I believe in it, and I trust that it is providing me with the nutrients I need to ward off many diseases.

Now, this article isn’t about trying to get you to become a vegan or vegetarian. I believe strongly in biochemical individuality, or the fact that our bodies are different with different nutritional and other needs. What works for one person will not always work for the next. So, while I am unable to digest meat well, your body may actually function better by including some meat in your diet.

In fact, my husband and my older son both eat animal products fairly regularly, although both of them are recognizing the importance of eating plant-based foods and incorporate “vegetarian days” throughout their week. My younger son, however, has some digestive difficulty with meat and does better with consuming smaller amounts. And as for me, plant-based foods are my best option.

Interestingly, I’ve discovered that the inability to properly digest meat may be more common than we believe. As a result, I’d like to share with you some of the more surprising statistics about meat consumption and some of the warning signs you may have trouble digesting animal products. I’ll also be sharing how you can determine what (if any) meats are causing your health concerns or discomfort. Finally, if you suspect that consuming meat may be causing some problems for you, I’ll also provide some of my favorite plant-based meat alternatives to help you get started. So, let’s dive in!


What You Don't Know About Digestion and Meat Consumption

You may be surprised to learn that, according to a 2013 survey, 72 percent of Americans reported experiencing at least one troubling digestive symptom at least a few times each month. These symptoms included gas, bloating, diarrhea, stomach pain, and more. [1] And even more shocking? An astounding 74 percent reported having experienced these symptoms for more than six months!

Coincidently, American meat consumption is on the rise. In fact, studies have shown that Americans consume more than three times the amount of red meat as the global average. [2] And that number is only increasing. In fact, red meat and poultry production was reported to be around 60 billion pounds in 1990. But by 2018, that number had increased by more than 65 percent to 103 billion pounds! [3]

Now, while I can’t conclusively state that these two incredible reports are connected, it does make me wonder, especially given all that we know about the health detriments of consuming too much meat, along with the benefits of cutting back on meat consumption. For example, did you know that research shows that people who consume lots of red meat, and specifically processed meat, have a higher chance of developing major chronic illnesses, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and even some cancers?

Amazingly, by replacing these meats with whole food plant-based alternatives such as nuts, legumes, and more is linked to having a lower risk of developing these chronic diseases and even a longer lifespan? [4] In fact, researchers revealed in a 2019 study that those who consumed more processed and unprocessed red meat had a 13 percent higher mortality rate.

Interestingly, on a global scale, there is a newer trend toward cutting back on meat consumption, with approximately 60 percent of those polled looking to reduce their meat intake. [5] Furthermore, 62 percent of those looking to do so are doing it to improve their health. And once again, research supports these beliefs, especially in relation to digestive health.

In a 2011 study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers revealed that in their study of more than 47,000 participants, vegetarians are about 30 percent less likely than meat eaters to experience diverticular diseases. [6]

With all of the research I found, plus my realization that eating meat was the root cause of so many of my health concerns, the decision to move away from meat was an easy one. Now, I know that many people have alternate beliefs surrounding the idea of eating meat, so you will likely want to know for sure if that’s the root cause of your digestive difficulties or other health concerns. Fair enough! Let’s dive into the signs and symptoms you should be looking for to help you determine if you’re having trouble digesting meat and may need to look into consuming whole food plant-based meat alternatives to improve your nutrient absorption.


5 Signs You May Have Trouble Digesting Meat

Personally, I have low stomach acid, or hypochlorhydria, and that’s why I have such difficulty digesting meat. But why does this impact the ability to digest meat? Well, your stomach actually requires a good amount of acid to properly break down dense foods such as meat and animal products. Here are some of the top signs to watch for that indicate you may have trouble digesting meat.

1. Food sits like a rock in your stomach

This is pretty self-explanatory, and if you’ve ever felt this sensation, then you know exactly what I’m talking about. The discomfort and uneasiness are instantly recognizable. I felt this sensation as a kid quite a bit when I would eat red meat, poultry, or more than a few bites of seafood. It typically occurs because your stomach lacks the acid it needs to break down your food and move it along in your digestive system.

2. Bloating

You know the feeling—your stomach is distended, you feel “stuffed” like you ate way too much food (even if you barely ate at all), and you may even feel pain. Bloating occurs when excess gas builds up in your stomach or even your intestines. If your body takes too long to break down the food you’re eating, the food hangs around longer in your stomach and can cause you to become bloated. This inflammation and bloat, when chronic, can impact your future ability to break down any food via a “leaky gut”—and that results in future nutritional deficiencies and health problems.

3. Disinterest in eating

If your stomach is hurting and you feel completely full, there’s a greater likelihood that your appetite and interest in eating will suffer. After all, once you’ve finished a big meal, the last thing you want to do is eat another one. The big problem here is that when you lose interest in eating, it actually puts you at an increased risk of nutritional deficiencies, which increases your risk of developing other chronic diseases. [7] So while this digestive sign may not seem as urgent as the others on this list, which all cause more immediate and troublesome symptoms, it’s actually one of the most crucial to watch for.

My parents always told me that as a child I “ate like a bird”—and I did. I simply didn’t feel well. I didn’t want to eat more. After changing my diet, you should see how much I eat now! I am always hungry and eating—without the digestive distress I experienced before.

4. Constipation

Did you know that constipation alone accounts for about 8 million doctor’s visits alone in  the U.S.? [8] And that number doesn’t include those who don’t seek medical care for this issue. In fact, the estimated rates of those suffering from constipation are much higher, projected at 42 million! [9] But how is constipation linked to an inability to digest meat?

When your food sits in your digestive system for longer periods, it loses the water it contains to keep it soft, becoming harder to pass. This results in hard, dry stool that can cause other effects, such as hemorrhoids or even fissures (or tears). If you experience these symptoms regularly, or even if you have less than one bowel movement a day (on average), you are at risk of side effects from constipation.

5. Fatigue

When your digestive system isn’t functioning properly, your body loses its ability to adequately process and absorb the nutrients and minerals it needs from your food. As a result, you become nutritionally deficient, which has been shown to cause fatigue. In fact, numerous studies have linked digestive conditions to an increased likelihood of developing chronic fatigue syndrome. In fact, a 2019 study revealed patients with irritable bowel disease (IBD)were more than twice as likely to develop chronic fatigue syndrome than those without IBD. [10] So, if you’re feeling run down and lacking energy even after a full night’s sleep, consider that it could be diet related. If your food is causing digestive difficulties, it will impact your energy levels.


Plant-based meat alternatives - Dr. Pingel


5 Plant-Based Meat Alternatives

Once I discovered I couldn’t digest meat, I started researching the benefits of a plant-based diet on long-term health. What I found shocked me. The science revealed that eating a whole foods plant-based diet is linked to lower inflammatory markers, decreased instances of immune system troubles, and so much more.

As a result, I even incorporated a greater variety of plants and moved away from the junk plant-based food of my teen years and toward a more whole food plant-based diet. Here are my top whole food plant-based meat alternatives. Give them a try; I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how delicious and filling they are.

1. Mushrooms

Not only are mushrooms a great source of fiber and protein, but they’ve also been shown to help fight inflammation in the body. [11] They’re one of my top plant-based meat alternatives thanks to their health benefits and also their naturally meaty, juicy texture. You can cook them with flavors you love for a highly satisfying meal.

In fact, a 10-day study published in 2017 tested how satisfying mushrooms are in comparison to meat. Amazingly, the researchers discovered that those who ate mushrooms instead of meat reported greater fullness, less hunger, and even less snacking throughout the study duration. [12] If you’re starting out, try cooking a mushroom “steak” or even using mushrooms as a “meat” sauce. You can also sneak them into dishes like my sweet potato lasagna. I personally love to sauté mushrooms and top them with balsamic vinegar. You can add that to almost any plant-based bowl, sandwich, or stir-fry to really punch it up.

2. Tofu

Non-GMO tofu is another one of my favorite plant-based meat alternatives due to its high protein count. Did you know that 100 grams of tofu contains an amazing 10.13 grams of protein? [13] But that’s not all tofu offers. It’s also known to support bone health, skin health, and even reduce hot flashes in women with menopause. [14, 15, 16] In addition, tofu has been linked to improved cognitive function in women over age 65. [17]

I like to add tofu to dishes on days I need a little extra protein in my diet. If you’re looking for a place to start, try my vegan shish kebabs. They contain tofu along with a variety of vegetables and an incredibly tasty marinade you’re sure to love!

Now, many people will cite that tofu has too much impact on your estrogen levels to be a proper alternative. As with any situation, the entire health picture must be considered. Tofu may not be a good option for someone who regularly eats highly inflammatory foods or processed soy products or in those with certain medical conditions. But if you  are eating whole food plant-based foods and exercise daily, tofu is a welcomed addition that can offer a host of health benefits.

3. Chickpeas

Chickpeas are rich in protein along with many vitamins and minerals, making them another one of my top plant-based meat alternatives. Many studies have revealed that people who regularly eat chickpeas have higher nutrient intakes of dietary fiber, polyunsaturated fatty acids, folate, magnesium, potassium, iron, and numerous vitamins. And research has shown that eating chickpeas may help fight heart disease, diabetes, and even obesity. [18]

Personally, I like to use chickpeas in my snacks, either by making hummus or simply roasting them with some olive oil and salt. My kids like roasted chickpeas with garam masala, cinnamon, salt ,and pepper and eat them as tacos with some guacamole. We throw any leftovers on top of salads and plant-based bowls.

4. Lentils

These edible seeds are packed with protein, with one cup containing about 18 grams. In addition to being a great source of protein, they offer amazing health benefits such as supporting heart health, healthy blood sugar levels, and even fighting inflammation. [19, 20] Lentils also contain a significant amount of fiber, making them great in combatting constipation and one of my favorite plant-based meat alternatives. [21]

If you’re new to eating lentils, you should try out my vegan burger recipe. I use cooked lentils as the base in this incredibly delicious burger to help keep me filled and satisfied. Lentils also make incredible “meatballs” to serve with spaghetti.

5. Walnuts

Rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants, walnuts are a great addition to my list of whole food plant-based meat alternatives. As a bonus, they're known to support gut health and even healthy weight management. [22] In a 2018 study published in the journal Nutrients, it was shown that eating walnuts is linked in an increase in beneficial bacteria within the gut. [23]

You can easily incorporate more walnuts into your diet by including them in your side dishes. I add walnuts to my salads, pasta dishes, oatmeal, and granola. I also like to use them as a base for sauces over veggies. I especially like eating them with sweet potatoes. It offers a great dose of fiber to help support my digestive system, plus the sweetness of the potatoes match well with the rich walnut flavor.


Key Takeaways

  • The inability to properly digest meat may be more common than we believe, accounting for some of the increasing amounts of digestive troubles Americans are encountering.
  • More than 70 percent of Americans reported experiencing at least one troubling digestive symptom at least a few times each month. Coincidently, American meat consumption is on the rise, rising 65 percent in the last 18 years.
  • The top signs you may have trouble digesting meat are: food sits in your stomach like a rock, bloating, disinterest in eating, constipation, and fatigue.
  • Five of the best whole food plant-based meat alternatives include: mushrooms, tofu, chickpeas, lentils, and walnuts.
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