Plant-based burgers and runners

Eating more plant-based protein appeals to many health-conscious athletes who want to reduce their intake of saturated fat as well stand up for the environment and animal welfare concerns. As a result, more and more athletes are trending towards a vegetarian diet. Two types of non-meat eaters seem to be emerging:

1. The traditional vegetarian, who gets protein from nuts, beans, and legumes (and perhaps milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs, and fish, depending on how the athlete defines his or her meatless diet). Veggie burgers are their faux burger.

2. The vegetarian who chooses ultra-processed almond milk, "Beyond Burgers", and "Impossible Burgers". Plant-based foods, yes, but does ultra-processed really fit the essence of a vegetarian diet?

Just why would athletes want to consume ultra-processed proteins that are right up there with "Beefaroni" and hot dogs? Likely because they taste good. The "Beyond Burger" and the "Impossible Burger" offer a way to enjoy a tasty plant-based burger without feeling denied or deprived of the real thing - often a cherished childhood favorite.

Yes, a veggie burger is another meat alternative, but it just doesn't have the same mouth-feel or "chew" that food scientists have figured out how to create using a combination of plant proteins. They add coconut oil (with questionable health attributes) to create marbling - and a juicy burger. With the help of beet juice ("Beyond Burger") or synthetic heme made with yeast ("Impossible Burger"), these faux burgers "bleed," just like the real thing. As for taste and texture, people who don't like meat have been known to comment it tastes so real it "grosses them out." For reluctant vegetarians, needless to say, the faux burgers can be far more desirable than garden burgers and bean burgers.

To help make their new creation attractive, "Beyond Burger" uses a label with appealing buzz words - 20 grams of protein, plant-based, soy free, gluten free, no GMOs. Their marketing campaign mentions climate change, conservation, health, and animal welfare. Voila! They have a winning product that is exceeding sales expectations - despite the higher price tag. At the supermarket, you'll need to pay twice as much for a 4-ounce ultra-processed burger.

Is this burger a step in a nutritionally-positive direction in terms of the environment and our health? Regarding environmental concerns, both the "Impossible Burger" and "Beyond Burger" report an estimated 89% to 90% smaller carbon foot-print than a burger made from beef. Faux meat production requires less land and water, and creates less methane and manure (sources of pollution). Nutritionally speaking, faux meat is a reasonable match for real beef, but without the bioactive compounds that naturally occur in standard food. Natural foods contain known - and unknown - synergistic compounds, not to be replicated in imitation products.

Protein is important to optimize athletic performance. You need it to build, repair, and maintain your body's muscles. For a 150-lb athlete who trains hard, the recommended dose is about 20 grams of protein every four hours during the day (breakfast, early lunch, late lunch, dinner). A faux burger + roll can do the job, as can a lean beef burger.

As for me, I'll stick with an occasional all-natural lean beef burger when desired, and choose plant-based foods more often than not.

Credits - would like to thank Nancy Clark for the permission to reprint part of the article "Faux Burgers: Friend or Foe?" by Nancy Clark. Text © by Nancy Clark. Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; phone: 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook can help you eat for health and high energy. For more information about her books and online workshop, visit

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