Action News Jax Investigates if plant-based diets are really healthier

Action News Jax at 5:30 p.m.

U.S. — It’s supposed to be healthier for you, but is plant-based food really better than eating meat?

Action News Jax investigator Alicia Tarancon gives us the facts on what you’re really eating and the three ingredients making meatless meals less healthy.

Wen Raiti felt like a lot of moms: She was bloated and tired and said she was gaining weight.

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“I always (felt like I) have something in my stomach, like, you know, I have a basketball in my belly, that kind of feeling,” Raiti said.

Doctors diagnosed Raiti with irritable bowel syndrome, a condition impacting millions of Americans, mostly women.

“After a while, it started taking a toll on me,” she said.

So Raiti changed her diet, eating more fresh vegetables and tofu. Her weight dropped, and she felt energized.

Then she opened a restaurant, the House of Leaf and Bean, two years ago to help others struggling to lead a healthier lifestyle.

“We have two types of vegan burgers. One is we mix tofu, mushroom, kale and green peas, and the other one is a black bean burger. They’re both very popular,” Raiti said.

UF Health dietitian Kayla Fisher told Tarancon the demand for plant based options has skyrocketed.

"There's more awareness of the health benefits that come from following a plant-based diet. And so the food industry is shifting to accommodate that as well," Fisher said.

According to the Plant Based Foods Association, the plant-based market is a $4.5 billion industry and sales have jumped 31 percent in two years.

Matteo Florio went vegan 2 1/2 years ago and says he’s never felt better.

"I'm never going back to eating meat," he said.

Store shelves are stocked with meatless and vegetarian options, but look closer at some of the labels, and you’ll find some unhealthy ingredients.

“So many of these meatless items can be highly processed with lots of added sugars, added processed oils, sodium, preservatives. So just because it’s meatless, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy choice,” Fisher said.

Restaurants advertise the Impossible and Beyond Burgers as healthy alternatives to meat, but Fisher said just because it’s meatless doesn’t make it a better choice.

“These burgers are still pretty high in fat, pretty high in sodium so we want to be cautious and not overconsume them,” she said.

Florio said he only orders them sometimes.

“If I do get, like, a Beyond Burger or something, then it’s going to be in moderation, like once every three weeks or something,” he said.

Raiti says it's important to know what's inside your food before you eat it.

"When you taste it, you know what you are tasting," she said.

Fisher said you can get most of the nutrients you need on a plant-based diet, but you don’t have to cut out meat altogether.

"Research shows that we can get many of the health benefits from vegetarian or plant-based eating even if we don't follow it strictly every day," Fisher said.

Living healthy is more than a trend: It’s becoming a lifestyle for more local families. ​