It’s never been easier to give plant-based eating a whirl — yes, even if you’re the type that can’t imagine a meal without meat. And that’s a good thing, because plant-based diets come with a host of health benefits.
Whether you’re vegan, vegetarian, flexitarian, or simply trying to cut back on meat, eating more plants may benefit heart health, prevent certain types of cancer, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, and slow the rate of cognitive decline, says Kim Rose, RDN, a Lakeland, Florida–based consultant dietitian with food-tracking app Lose It!.
This way of eating can be a boon to the environment, too. A review published November 2019 in Advances in Nutrition found greenhouse gas emissions resulting from vegan and ovolactovegetarian (a person who follows a vegetarian diet that includes eggs and dairy) diets are about 50 percent and 35 percent lower than meat-eating diets, respectively.
“This is a major plus,” Rose says. “This lessened environmental impact preserves natural gases, helping to save the planet we live on.”
Maybe you aren’t ready to fully commit to a plant-based diet, but you are interested in incorporating more plant-based foods here and there. Adding these five easy plant-based substitutes for common animal-based products is a great way to get started.
1. Dairy-Free Milk for Dairy Milk
There are tons of dairy-free milks available — almond milk, oat milk, coconut milk, and soy milk, to name a few. “People may choose a dairy alternative for a variety of reasons; one may be due to allergy or intolerance,” says Brittany Scanniello, RDN, founder of Eat Simply Nutrition based in Boulder, Colorado. Others may choose dairy-free because they’re not a fan of the taste of milk or the use of animal products.
From a nutritional perspective, dairy-free milk tends to have the same or slightly fewer calories than whole cow’s milk but is usually lower in fat and sugar, according to the American Society for Nutrition. Next time you’re in the grocery store, peruse the milk aisle — you’ll find this is often true, but ultimately that every type of dairy-free milk has a slightly different nutritional profile. Compare the nutrition information of the dairy and dairy-free milk options available in your local store to help you choose a milk that best suits your diet.
One edge cow’s milk has over most dairy-free options and it’s a good source of protein, as data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) suggests. “When looking at dairy-alternatives, I always try to emphasize the importance of finding one with similar protein content,” Scanniello says. Rose suggests soy or pea milk for comparable protein.
Alternatively, if you’re concerned about carbohydrates, look for unsweetened cashew or almond milk, Rose says. Both will offer significantly fewer carbohydrates per serving than dairy milk.
Scanniello also says it’s important to look for plant-based milks that have been fortified with calcium and vitamin D. She served an unsweetened pea-based milk to her daughter who had a milk allergy: “The pea-based milk had a similar protein content to that dairy milk and was fortified with both calcium and vitamin D.”
One more note: These milk alternatives will likely be more expensive than cow’s milk, according to the American Society for Nutrition.
2. Aquafaba, Flax Egg, or Just Egg Substitute for Egg
Potential reasons to choose a plant-based egg instead of one from chickens are for ethical concerns or an allergy, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Eggs are a common food allergy, so substituting a recipe with aquafaba or flax egg is a viable plant-forward option for cooking and baking,” Rose says.
Never heard of aquafaba? Check your pantry. Aquafaba is the liquid that chickpeas are cooked and canned in, according to US News & World Report. Since it contains only trace nutrients, it’s lower in calories, sodium, cholesterol, and fats than egg, and you can substitute it by tablespoons — 1 tablespoon (tbsp) for one yolk, 2 tbsp for one egg white, and 3 tbsp for a whole egg.
A flax egg, meanwhile, incorporates flaxseed meal (ground flaxseeds) and water to make an egg substitute that offers protein, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids. The recipe for a flax egg from Jessica in the Kitchen will show you how to get started. Flax eggs offer more nutritional value than aquafaba, and contain 37 calories, 2 milligrams (mg) sodium, 3 grams (g) fat, and no cholesterol, per the USDA. One large chicken’s egg has about 70 calories, 5 g of fat, 0.5 g carbohydrate, 6 g of protein, and 207 mg cholesterol, according to the USDA.
“On the other hand, the Just Egg brand substitute is a good [plant-based] grab-and-go egg replacer if you desire to have a fluffy egg-like texture for breakfast or lunch entrees,” Rose adds. It also has the most similar nutritional profile to real eggs. One serving of Just Egg contains 70 calories, 5 g of fat, 1 g carbohydrate, and 5 g of protein, according to the Just Egg website.
3. Jackfruit for Pulled Pork
Try jackfruit as a low-calorie substitute for pulled pork. Its chewy, slightly stringy texture makes it a simple swap. “I love incorporating jackfruit as it really does give a similar texture and appearance to pulled meat,” Scanniello says.
It’ll also significantly cut down your calories. A 1-cup serving of pulled pork with barbecue sauce (about 249 g) has 418 calories, while a 1-cup serving of jackfruit (about 150 g) has 143 calories, according to the USDA.
That being said, it’s not a perfect substitute: “Jackfruit does not contain enough protein to replace pulled pork or tofu, although it can be considered a great option if you are looking to adhere to Meatless Mondays,” Rose says.
The idea of cooking with jackfruit can be intimidating, though. Not sure where to start? Try the recipe for BBQ Jackfruit Sandwiches with Avocado Slaw from Minimalist Baker. You’re bound to have most of the ingredients in your pantry already — sourcing the jackfruit may be the toughest part, though it’s widely available at Whole Foods, on Amazon, or at Asian grocery stores. You can also check out these 10 RDN-approved jackfruit recipes for beginners.
4. Impossible or Beyond Meat for Ground Meat
You won’t have to look too far for a substitute for your burger addiction. You’ll find plant-based meat alternatives from Impossible Foods or Beyond Meat on grocery store shelves and even on fast-food menus across the country.
You might be motivated to make the switch for environmental reasons. “Meat alternatives may be a better option than real meat because they are environmentally sustainable,” Rose says. “This is important, especially if you’re concerned about where the planet is headed.” But they’re not perfect: While plants are more sustainable than meat, meat alternative companies are not as pure as they seem to be. These companies are major food processors, after all, and production, packaging, and shipping to grocery stores takes a toll on the environment.
What’s more, meat alternatives may not be a better option than a traditional beef patty when comparing nutrients, she adds. They have similar saturated fat levels, which in excess can raise your cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart issues or stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).
At the same time, a randomized crossover study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in November 2020 suggested that participants’ cholesterol levels and weight were lower while eating a diet containing plant-meat than animal meat. (Keep in mind that Beyond Meat funded the study, though, and industry involvement in research on their products may influence the results, as Vox reported.)
“If a client is looking to really cut back on red meat but really wants the mouthfeel and flavors of hamburger, I suggest Beyond Meat as it is lower in saturated fat, while still high in protein and vitamin B12,” Scanniello says. “If someone enjoys tinkering in the kitchen, I prefer recommending a less-processed approach and instead steer them in the direction of preparing their own black-bean-based hamburger patty.” You can find other homemade plant-burger options online.
5. Vegan Cheese Fortified With Protein and Calcium for Cheese
For some people toying with moving to a plant-based diet, the idea of giving up cheese is a dealbreaker. But here’s the good news: You don’t have to give it up entirely. If you’re eating plant-based for ethical reasons, you can occasionally swap in vegan cheese, which may use cashews, seeds, or tofu as its creamy base.
Nutritionally, it’s hard to say which is better. Vegan cheese, particularly those made from potato starch, may save you fat and calories compared with conventional cheese, suggests Rose.
But vegan cheese may also be lower in good-for-you nutrients such as protein and calcium. That’s why Scanniello isn’t a fan: “I have not found a vegan cheese where I love the nutrient profile,” she says.
To protect your ticker, avoid coconut oil-based cheese, which is high in saturated fats and salts and not significantly lower in calories, according to a review of plant-based cheese options in Spanish supermarkets published September 2021 in Nutrients. The review also suggested that cashew nut-based and tofu-based cheeses were lower in saturated fats, and that the latter were lower in calories.