Vegetarian Thanksgiving: How Turkey Alternatives Measure Up Nutritionally

For many, the star of the Thanksgiving meal is the turkey -- but what about the vegetarians and vegans among us?

Five percent of Americans giving thanks this week consider themselves vegetarians, and 2 percent say they are vegans, according to a Gallup poll.

Vegetarianism aside, Americans in general are eating less meat. In fact, we're expected to eat 12 percent less meat and poultry than we ate five years back, the Washington Post reported.

That might not apply to Thanksgiving -- the biggest turkey-eating day of the year. About 88 percent of people eat turkey at Thanksgiving, meaning there are about 46 million birds purchased for the big day, compared to 22 million eaten at Christmas, according to the National Turkey Federation's estimates.

But if you're an herbivore -- or will be hosting one -- what are your options? Of course, there are a number of creative ways to use meat-free proteins and super-healthy fall produce, but what if you're looking for something a little closer to an actual turkey?

A number of "turkey" products can add to the festive atmosphere in the same way as an actual bird. "We don't put whole turkeys on our table on a regular basis," says Becky Hand, R.D., consulting dietitian for SparkPeople. "It's one of these extra-special things for the celebration -- I feel that's why these [imitation] products are popular."

Many are also quick-and-easy options that don't require any prep or much cooking time, says Vandana Sheth, R.D., C.D.E., registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, who also happens to be a lifelong vegetarian.

Just don't fall victim to the "if it's vegan, it must be healthy" myth. These products are still processed foods, after all!

"If you are taking lentils and beans and soy and turning them into something that looks like turkey, that's going to require ingredients that gel and form things into the shape that you want," says Hand. Those ingredients aren't dangerous, per se, but they do add to long ingredients lists.

"A lot of these are heavily processed, where you lose some of the nutritional benefits found in soy naturally," says Sheth. She recommends picking a faux-turkey product with the fewest number of ingredients on the label.

Another downside is sodium, says Hand. "Most of them fall in the range of 500 to 700 milligrams, which is about a third of your needs for the day." That's a little high, she says, but doesn't have to be a deal-breaker. "You could easily incorporate that into your daily intake, as long as you're doing lower-sodium side dishes," she says.

Sheth agrees. "Watch for fat content, watch for sodium, because when [foods are] processed, they do have to add those things to make it flavorful."

But faux-turkey options aren't all bad! "I think they're an excellent way to obtain protein," says Hand, in a nod to one of the main concerns some have about becoming a vegetarian. The protein usually comes from lentils, beans or soy, she says. Those that are made from a type of bean can also be a good source of fiber, she adds.

Of course, there are other options. If you're hosting or attending a pot-luck feast, Sheth recommends making a vegetarian option like stuffed portobello mushrooms, lasagna, stuffed acorn squash, a meatless loaf made with lentils and beans or a vegetarian chili with lots of beans and veggies. And keep in mind that if you're a guest at a meat-centric feast, many tables will be filled with vegetarian or even vegan side dishes. "You might be able to put together a complete meal without having an entree," she says.

If you're set on a meatless "turkey" product, here are six of the most common on the market -- a number of which have been reviewed for taste, appearance and "meatiness" here and here -- and how they measure up nutritionally to the real thing.

The Real Deal: Roasted Light Meat With Skin

Vegetarian Thanksgiving Alternatives

Flickr photos by Andrea Goh and Jake Metcalf

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