Health

Vegan Options at Fast-Food Restaurants Aren’t Healthy. Here’s Why

Experts say these plant-based options are indeed meatless, but they still contain high amounts of fat, carbohydrates, and salt.

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The vegan sandwich at KFC is the latest plant-based offering at fast-food restaurant chains. Getty Images

KFC — the fast-food chain known for its fried chicken offerings — is rolling out a sandwich that contains no meat whatsoever.

The new meatless sandwich, dubbed the “Imposter Burger,” is available at select restaurants in the United Kingdom for the next four weeks.

It’s part of a larger trend of fast-food restaurants and meat producers diversifying their offerings in an effort to attract people looking to wean themselves off meat.

While these products are indeed vegan-friendly, experts interviewed by Healthline say they’re still too highly processed to truly be considered a healthy alternative to meat.

“I think plant-based ‘meats’ are a step in the right direction, but they really are too high fat and processed to be healthful on a regular basis,” said Dr. Andrew Freeman, a cardiologist and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health.

“I want to be positive about it, but I also don’t want people eating KFC burgers for the rest of their lives,” he added.

KFC’s burger is just one of many offerings in the burgeoning field of plant-based meat alternatives, often referred to as “beyond meat” products.

The reasons behind this trend are evident.

There’s no doubt that a plant-based diet is a healthy way to live. Top nutritionists agree that Americans should eat less meat.

Similar products include Burger King’s Impossible Whopper in the San Francisco Bay Area, a McDonald’s Big Vegan TS burger in Germany, and Beyond Meat breakfast sandwiches and burgers at A&W in Canada.

Factor in the offerings available at grocery stores, and there’s no shortage of plant-based products that replicate the taste and texture of meat.

“This is not really a new thing. It’s a trend that’s very rapidly growing. A nonmeat IPO did phenomenally well, and people did an enormous return on investment,” Freeman told Healthline.

Freeman says that while plant-based proteins are more environmentally friendly than farming meat, there are some significant caveats.

“The downside is that these products, while very tasty, are probably not very healthful for regular consumption. This means that they’re very, very high in fat and saturated fat containing coconut oil, so I really only recommend them as an occasional treat — if they’re ever to be consumed at all,” Freeman said.

Indeed, the nutritional differences between KFC’s Imposter Burger and their regular chicken sandwich are minor.

The meatless burger is similar in terms of fat and caloric content, with less protein, more carbohydrates, and more salt.

Despite this, these meatless offerings seem to be growing in popularity, whether it’s because of the perception of being healthier or simply as a treat for someone who’d prefer not to eat meat.

Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a licensed, registered dietitian who manages the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, says it’s too early to say whether these products could drive vegans and vegetarians to fast-food restaurants they might not normally frequent.

“It might be too early to tell the impact that vegan fast-food meat has on consumer behavior and health. However, if we simply look at the popularity and stock rise of popular competitors, I would assume yes,” Kirkpatrick told Healthline.

“Further, red meat has not been popular lately in the press and in studies, citing health and environmental concerns,” she added. “I also am aware of many patients of mine that never go to certain fast-food eateries, but are going to a select few now so they can get their vegan chicken or burger.”

“It’s important to remember that the basis of cardiovascular health, and actually human health in general when it comes to nutrition, is a predominantly plant-based and whole-food, unprocessed type of diet,” Freeman said. “So, this sandwich might be plant-based, but it isn’t better than a salad.”

Kirkpatrick agrees, saying her guidance to patients is to find the least processed meal options possible.

So, while these fast-food products may help shine a light on the importance of moving to a more plant-based diet, they’re hardly the ideal way to move to a healthy eating schedule.

“I’ve seen vegans that don’t eat animal products yet still have a lousy diet, filled with processed foods, sugar, and refined grains,” Kirkpatrick said. “Going vegan is not a guarantee that your health will improve. You actually have to do it right.”

For those who’d like to move to a plant-based diet — and do so with unprocessed foods rather than fast food — there are a couple of ways forward.

Kirkpatrick says she usually starts with baby steps, giving guidance on ways to eat beans and legumes as a protein source rather than meat, along with encouragement to eat more fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.

Freeman says that when a person stops eating animal products, it takes about two weeks for the cravings to die down.

“When we’re used to it — and there’s a somewhat addictive nature to some dairy products in particular — it’s very hard to get off unless you really are willful about it,” Freeman explained.

“But if you can do it for two weeks, most of the time it can be sustained. But it does take a significant effort. Some people need to take baby steps, but most people are wired to do all or nothing,” he said.

Ultimately, it’s too early to tell if this trend will continue to pick up steam. But given increased evidence that meat and dairy farming is unsustainable, we could be seeing the early stages of a societal shift to a more plant-based diet.

“I’m not sure we will ever move 100 percent away from the current model, but we do see improvements — and perhaps more importantly, it’s what consumers want,” Kirkpatrick said. “Consumer demand will continue to drive this trend forward, and one day, we will have long-term data to show us if it was all worth it.”

Doctors and nutritionists agree that a plant-based diet that’s less reliant on meat is a healthier way to eat.

This knowledge, along with a demand for more ethical and sustainable food products, has driven a trend toward more plant-based products that imitate meat.

While these products are indeed meat-free, they’re still heavily processed and aren’t really healthier than a standard burger or fried chicken sandwich.

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It’s a good idea to move toward a plant-based diet. But this should be done with unprocessed foods.

Meatless fast-food options should only be seen as an occasional treat rather than a dietary staple.


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