Should you eat more plant protein and swap out the steak for lentils to live longer?
Eating more plant protein may help improve your health and extend your life and eating more animal protein could have the opposite effect according to brand new research. I talked to CBC Radio across Canada this morning (13 interviews!) and Radio Canada International about this new study from researchers at Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital. Listen to what I had to say to CBC and read on for more insights!
What were the key findings from the plant protein vs. animal protein study?
This is an observational study that followed the lifestyle habits of 130,000 nurses and healthcare professionals over several decades.
Found that people who eat more plant protein and less protein from animals may live longer when they have unhealthy habits like heavy drinking, smoking, being overweight or physically inactive.
Eating 3% more plant protein was linked to a 10% lower risk of dying during the study period.
Eating 10% more animal protein was associated with a 2% higher risk of dying from any cause and an 8% higher risk of dying from heart disease.
Surprising Result: smaller increases in plant protein intake were linked to greater health benefits compared to lower intakes of animal protein. In other words, to see a similar health benefit, you would need to decrease meat protein 3x the amount that you would need to increase plant protein.
What I loved about that finding was that it puts a positive spin on diet changes. What plant-based proteins can you add to your diet? That should be the focus, rather than taking animal protein away. It’s all about 80 twenty, people!
The interviewers all wanted to know if this study gives you free reign to chow down on red meat if you’re otherwise healthy. That’s not what the results tell us! They do show that your health is the result of the big picture of all of your health decisions over time. In the study, we saw that heavy drinkers tend to be overweight, eat more meat and high fat dairy. Lifestyle behaviours tend to cluster together to impact our health rather than 1 thing alone determining your lifespan or chronic disease risk.
The research also suggests increased risk of death for red meat and processed meat such as sausage and bacon. Lean proteins such as chicken and fish appeared to be neutral in their effect on longevity.
How does this study fit into the larger body of research that has already been done on plant protein compared to animal protein?
Rest assured, these findings fit with what we know so far. This research supports World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations to avoid processed meat and limit red meat because of their links to cancer and heart disease.
The American Institute for Cancer Research recommends we revamp our plates at each meal so 2/3 or more of every meal is foods from plants and 1/3 or less is food from animals.
How significant is this study?
This is a large study that gives us some strong evidence to support existing research.
Because the design is observational, it’s a “let’s watch and see what happens” type of study. This study can suggest an association, but not cause and effect like a randomized control trial.
If you do see any headlines proclaiming that meat will kill you and tofu and beans help you live longer, know that the research has been applied incorrectly. Either of these things could be true but this particular study doesn’t say that.
Another potential limitation: health professionals were the participants in this study, and they might not reflect the entire population.
What lessons should we take away from the plant protein vs. animal protein study findings?
-Based on this study, if you had other less than healthy habits and tried to clean up your diet, it could have quite an impact on your overall health and longevity.
-Note that going vegan or vegetarian isn’t necessarily healthy. For example, Oreos and white bread are vegan, but not healthy. Food quality is the most important thing. Choose whole foods over processed and packaged whenever possible!
-Plant-based proteins are packed with nutrients that promote health and lower inflammation. Nuts and seeds, beans and lentils are fabulous vegetarian protein sources that come packed with nutrients such as fibre, B vitamins and phytochemicals. Compare that with red meat that’s loaded with saturated fat and processed meats which contain sodium and nitrates which have been linked to heart disease and cancer.
-The “Meatless Monday” movement can go further. Why not have vegetarian meals every day?
Take Home Messages
- Avoid processed meat, limit red meat
- Chicken and fish are still great choices, they’re not linked to increase risk of death in the study
- Follow AICR’s New American Plate to boost your phytochemical intake and overall health
- Choose anti-inflammatory foods
Tips to add more plant protein to your meals:
- At breakfast, go for some natural nut butter such as almond butter on your toast. Add chia seeds, hemp seeds or ground flax seeds to your yogurt, oatmeal or cereal.
- For lunch and dinner, add cooked beans and lentils to a quick whole grain pasta or quinoa, chilli, soup or salad.
- Enjoy raw, unsalted nuts and seeds or roasted organic edamame or chickpeas for snacks.
The science of nutrition can be complicated. How can you tell which study to pay attention to?
What I always tell my clients is “look for guidelines, not headlines.” A study’s findings should be consistent with a lot of the other research we’ve seen before. Ask yourself “Does this seem to make sense based on what we know already?” It’s what I refer to as “Calling for backup”.
If research findings seem to go against everything we know so far, dig a little deeper. What other studies does the research refer to, and were they designed well?
Overall, this study is a great example of findings that support existing research. We can conclude that the movement towards a more plant-based diet is a positive one to increase your chances for a longer, healthier life.
New to plant-based eating? Try my Finger Lickin’ Tofu Nuggets
and Lentil Coconut Curry for tasty ways to get your plant proteins!