In recent times, the human diet has changed substantially. We have access to an unprecedented variety of foods, yet meat consumption has increased dramatically: from 20 kilograms a year in 1961, to around 43 kilograms in 2014. However, recent studies have increasingly found that meat consumption can have negative health effects, and substitute meat for plant protein can provide important benefits.
The latest study followed almost 71,000 middle-aged Japanese adults for an average of almost two decades. They split the people into five groups based on how much plant protein they ate. People who ate the most plants were 13% less likely to die during the study and 16% less likely to die of cardiovascular causes than people who ate the least amount of plants.
Furthermore, when people replaced just 4% of processed meat in their diet with plant protein, they were 46% less likely to die of any cause and 50% less likely to die of cancer.
This is hardly the first study to come up with these conclusions. Numerous previous studies have found that higher consumption of animal protein is associated with chronic diseases and mortality and higher consumption of plant protein reduces this risk. However, most of these studies were conducted on people in the Western World, where consumption of animal protein is much higher. This study, carried on people with a high plant protein consumption, showcases that more plant protein is always helpful.
Leaner meat, such as fish, is also a decent alternative, researchers say.
“Our study suggests that plant protein may provide beneficial health effects and that replacement of red and processed meat protein with plant or fish protein may increase longevity,” the researchers write.
Contrary to popular belief, many plants are protein-rich — up to the point where they rival and even surpass meat. Lean beef contains around 26 grams of protein per 100 grams, comparable to lean pork (although fatter meats have way less protein). Meanwhile, kidney beans and chickpeas have around 24 grams of protein per 100 grams — and plenty of other plants can serve as excellent alternatives.
Furthermore, it’s not just the proteins — these plants are also rich in fiber and other important nutrients which meat is lacking. Fiber, in particular, has been shown to provide important health benefits and is often lacking from meat-rich diets.
There’s also a shortcoming to this study: the participants’ diets were only assessed once, at the start of the study. It’s possible that along the road, some of their dietary patterns changed. However, this adds to the growing body of evidence regarding the negative effects of a meat-rich diet. The science is in: if you want to live a healthy life, eat less meat and more plants.
The study has been published in JAMA Internal Medicine.