Many people nowadays are thinking about viable meat replacements, for a variety of reasons.
Some believe that meat is inherently unhealthy, others are concerned about the effects that raising animals has on the environment, and still others have moral objections to eating animal products.
One food group that is often mentioned as a meat substitute is legumes.
But first, we need to talk about the nutritional role of meat in a healthy diet.
What is the nutritional role of meat in the human diet?
Meat, fish, eggs, and some dairy products are extremely protein-rich.
For example, a 4-ounce sirloin steak has around 34 grams of protein, and 4 ounces of tilapia has about 30 grams of protein.
Protein plays several vital roles in the body, including lean tissue growth and repair, immune system function, and hormone regulation.
Protein is widely known as the building blocks of the human body — not just of muscle, but also of bone, neurotransmitters, hormones, and immune system signaling molecules.
Protein is crucial to maintaining proper growth and development in children, and is just as essential to healthy aging.
Next, meat is dense in micronutrients (substances needed by your body in small amounts, such as vitamins and minerals). 4 ounces of chicken breast, for example, has a whopping 14mg of vitamin B3, accompanied by the other B vitamins in smaller amounts:
The same amount of chicken breast also contains a variety of minerals, most notably phosphorus.
As nutrient-dense as the chicken breast is, it fails to compare to the nutritional powerhouse that is red meat. 6 ounces of sirloin steak contains all of the B vitamins and is especially high in B6 and B12.
It also has a healthy dose of choline:
It also packs a punch in the minerals department, providing almost the daily value of zinc in one serving, as well as a healthy dose of bioavailable iron:
Red meat also contains compounds such as carnosine, carnitine, creatine, and taurine.
Each of these compounds has unique benefits for human health.
- Carnosine fights glycation in the body and works as an antioxidant to scavenge free radicals.
- Carnitine is likely helpful in preventing anemia, improves the body’s use of glucose, and may improve male fertility by improving sperm quality.
- Creatine has been shown to improve athletic performance and even cognitive function, in some cases.
- Taurine is another powerful antioxidant and glycation inhibitor.
All of these compounds are found in meat, particularly red meat.
Can pulses replace meat in a meal?
Now that we’ve explored the nutritional roles that meat fills in a healthy diet, we need to ask the question, “can legumes (pulses) fill the same roles?”
Can legumes (like beans, chickpeas, lentils, soy products, and peanuts) provide adequate-protein, micronutrients, and other beneficial compounds (like carnosine, carnitine, creatine, and taurine) to the same extent that meat does?
Let’s compare beef and kidney beans, as an example, to see how they compare nutritionally. 4 ounces of sirloin steak contains 30 grams of total protein, while 4 ounces of cooked kidney beans contains 9 grams of total protein.
To get a comparable amount of protein from plants as you would get from that 4-ounce steak, you would need to eat 12 ounces of kidney beans, plus a cup of rice.
The steak would cost you 181 calories, while the beans and rice would cost you 638 calories (including 122 grams of carbs).
How do the beans and steak compare from a micronutrient perspective? 4 ounces of steak contains almost the entire recommended daily intake for vitamin B12, which is one of the most widespread deficiencies in the world.
It also has high levels of B3, B6, phosphorus, selenium, and zinc. 4 ounces of kidney beans, by comparison, contains 37% of the daily value of folate, but comparatively low levels of other vitamins and minerals.
The table below provides a side-by-side comparison of the vitamin content of steak and kidney beans.
You will see that except for folate, steak is more nutritionally dense in vitamins than beans.
|Vitamin||4 oz. sirloin steak||4 oz. kidney beans|
|B1 (Thiamine)||.1 mg (8% DRI)||.2 mg (16% DRI)|
|B2 (Riboflavin)||.3 mg (30% DRI)||.1 mg (6% DRI)|
|B3 (Niacin)||9 mg (64% DRI)||.7 mg (5% DRI)|
|B5 (Pantothenic Acid)||.5 mg (10% DRI)||.2 mg (5% DRI)|
|B6 (Pyridoxine)||.9 mg (68% DRI)||.1mg (10% DRI)|
|B12 (Cobalamin)||2.3 mcg (95% DRI)||0 mcg (0% DRI)|
|Folate||5.7 mcg (1% DRI)||147.4 mcg (37% DRI)|
|Vitamin A||15.9 IU (1% DRI)||0 IU (0% DRI)|
|Vitamin C||0 mg (0% DRI)||1.4 mg (2% DRI)|
|Vitamin D||1.1 IU (0% DRI)||1.1 IU (0% DRI)|
|Vitamin E||.3 mg (2% DRI)||0 mg (0% DRI)|
|Vitamin K||2.2 mcg (2% DRI)||2.5 mcg (11% DRI)|
DRI=daily recommended intake
Below is another table comparing the mineral content of steak and beans.
Beans come out ahead of beef in copper, magnesium, and manganese, while beef has more phosphorus, selenium, and zinc.
|Mineral||4 oz. sirloin steak||4 oz. kidney beans|
|Calcium||18.1 mg (2% DRI)||39.7 mg (4% DRI)|
|Copper||.1 mg (7% DRI)||.2 mg (27% DRI)|
|Iron||3.3 mg (18% DRI)||2.5 mg (14% DRI)|
|Magnesium||17 mg (5% DRI)||47.6 mg (15% DRI)|
|Manganese||0 mg (0% DRI)||.5 mg (27% DRI)|
|Phosphorus||306.2 mg (44% DRI)||156.5 mg (22% DRI)|
|Potassium||435.4 mg (9% DRI)||459.3 mg (10% DRI)|
|Selenium||30.9 mcg (56% DRI)||1.2 mcg (2% DRI)|
|Sodium||76 mg (3% DRI)||1.1 mg (0% DRI)|
|Zinc||5.1 mg (64% DRI)||1.1 mg (14% DRI)|
DRI=daily recommended intake
When considering the nutritional value of beans, it’s important to keep in mind that while they are relatively nutrient-dense foods, the amount of nutrition present in the food itself is not all absorbed by the human body.
Beans contain phytic acid, which has been shown to impair the absorption of zinc, iron, and calcium.
The micronutrients present in meat, on the other hand, are typically more bioavailable and easily absorbed by the body.
We have seen that meat, especially red meat, contains unique health-promoting compounds such as carnosine, carnitine, creatine, and taurine.
These compounds are not present in beans.
However, beans do have their own set of health-promoting compounds.
Beans have fiber, which may promote digestive health in some individuals; meat does not contain fiber (it should be noted that fiber can actually cause digestive disfunction in some people— there is a whole subset of the population that does not tolerate fiber and other plant compounds).
Beans are also full of various types of antioxidants and polyphenols, which help restrain the damaging effects of free radicals within the body.
Are chickpeas a good substitute for meat?
Chickpeas, like other legumes, are seeds. Chickpeas are also known by other names, such as garbanzo beans, Bengal grams, and Egyptian peas.
They are the primary ingredient in hummus and is also used to make falafel, chana masala, and curry.
They are a key ingredient in Indian, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern cooking.
Remember — the primary nutritional role meat plays in our diet is to provide high-quality, bioavailable protein, as well as vitamins and minerals.
How do chickpeas stack up against meat from a nutritional perspective?
Let’s compare chickpeas with pork loin chops. 4 ounces of chickpeas have 10 grams of protein, while a 4-ounce pork chop contains 32.7 grams of protein.
Thus, pork has about 3 times the amount of protein as chickpeas.
Pork is clearly superior to chickpeas from a protein perspective.
Chickpeas are a good source of some vitamins and minerals, especially folate (195 mcg per 4-ounce serving), copper (.4 mg), and manganese (1.2 mg).
Pork is a good source of several B vitamins, phosphorus (251 mg per 4-ounce serving), selenium (49 mcg), and zinc (3.2 mg).
Chickpeas and pork are both relatively nutrient-dense, but they are rich in different vitamins and minerals.
Can I replace chicken with chickpeas in my diet?
4 ounces of chicken breast provides a robust serving of protein at 35 grams, while the same amount of chickpeas has only 10 grams of protein.
Chicken wins out over chickpeas in the protein department.
Chicken also provides plentiful B3 (14.1 mg, which is more than the DRI, in one 4-ounce serving), B6, and phosphorus.
Chickpeas are rich in different nutrients, as summarized above.
Similar to the comparison with pork, chickpeas and chicken have very different nutrient profiles, although both can be considered nutrient-dense.
Do chickpeas have as much protein as meat?
As noted above, 4 ounces of chickpeas contain 10 grams of protein.
On the other hand, 4 ounces of chicken breast has 35 grams of protein, 4 ounces of sirloin steak has 34 grams of protein, and a 4-ounce pork chop has 33 grams.
In order to obtain a similar amount of protein from chickpeas, you would have to consume a whopping 12 ounces of cooked chickpeas (or about 2 full cups).
Such a large serving of chickpeas is over 550 calories, including 93 grams of carbohydrates.
This highlights one of the main problems with looking to legumes as a replacement for meat.
In order to truly serve as a meat replacement, a food would need to provide similar amounts of protein.
But in order to get a serving of protein from legumes that is comparable to what you could get from meat, you would need to consume far more calories.
Consuming that many excess calories over time will most likely lead to body fat gain, which carries with it a host of potential health problems.
In my assessment, it is best to consider legumes and meat as separate foods with unique health benefits.
If you enjoy eating legumes and digest them well, feel free to eat them!
But do not look to them as a meat replacement. Let meat be meat, and let beans be beans.