Replacing meat-based proteins with plants reduces the risk of early death and a range of diseases.

In 2015, the World Health Organisation caused a furor when it declared that bacon, sausages, ham and other processed red meats cause cancer. Meat-eaters were in uproar at the prospect of giving up their Sunday bacon sarnie. But in medical circles, the idea that processed meats are linked to poor health outcomes is less controversial.

There have been numerous studies over the years linking meat to cancer. So how big of a difference does it make if you substitute your animal proteins for vegetable sources?

In a huge Japanese study, more than 70,000 people were followed for up to 26 years, from 1999 to 2016. They were healthy at the beginning of the research, aged  between 40 and 69 and didn’t have any history of stroke, cancer or heart disease.

Every five years, all the people in the study were asked about their diet. That included what they ate on a daily basis, where they got their nutrients from, and importantly for this research – their main sources of protein.

Following this group of people over more than two decades meant that some of them inevitably died – and deaths, including their causes, were also tracked.

By finding out so much about the lives of these Japanese people and their diets, the researchers were able to sort them into groups based on how much plant or animal protein they consumed. They found that the top sources of animal protein were fish (by far the biggest contributor) and red meat. Plant sources of protein were cereals, pulses and vegetables).

Diet high in plant proteins reduces risk of cancer, heart disease

The researchers then looked at whether the type and amount of protein these people ate over their lives influenced their time and cause of death.

They found that the people who substituted plants for animal protein had a lower risk of dying early. They were also specifically less likely to die from cancer or heart disease.

Implications

The biggest difference was seen in the group who ate the least plant protein – suggesting that adding even a few plants to your diet can reap benefits.

Plants can give us protein, but they’re also vital sources of fibre – which we know is similarly associated with longevity and a healthful life.

Last Reviewed: 22/04/2020

© Norman Swan Medical Communications.



References

For reference: Budhathoki, et al (2019). Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.2806.