It's no secret we could all benefit from consuming more plants. After all, many greens are high in fiber and chock-full of necessary vitamins and nutrients. But two new studies focusing specifically on protein show just how vital consuming less meat really is for our health and longevity. These studies are centered on the associations of various protein sources with mortality, and they make specific comparisons between the health effects of diets high in red meat versus other protein sources.
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The most recent study, published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, was conducted at the University of Eastern Finland and found that participants whose primary sources of protein were animal-based had a higher risk of early death than those with a more balanced animal-to-plant protein ratio. The researchers also found that higher intakes of animal protein among participants with existing conditions like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer resulted in even higher risks of early mortality than others with those conditions.
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In terms of the study, people who consumed just 200 grams meat per day—the equivalent of a 7-ounce steak—raised their risk by 23 percent over those who ate only 100 grams of meat daily or less. The authors noted that the men participating in this study mainly ate red meat as their protein source.
The researchers analyzed data from the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study (KIHD), which assessed the dietary habits of approximately 2,600 Finnish men aged 42 to 60 for 20 years. After the final follow-up, those participants who consumed less than 100 grams of meat per day had a significantly lower mortality risk than those who consumed mostly meat for protein. It's important to note that intakes of fish, eggs and dairy were not associated with early mortality and that the mortality association was strictly with consumption of chicken, beef, pork and other types of meat.
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A second study from Harvard University focused specifically on the health effects of red meat consumption. They found that swapping red meat for healthy plant proteins led to favorable changes in total cholesterol and LDL (the "bad" cholesterol) and therefore a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
The Harvard researchers also looked at total cholesterol, triglycerides, lipoproteins and blood pressure—all risk factors for heart disease—as they analyzed data from 36 randomized control trials involving 1,803 people. When they compared diets rich in red meat to a variety of other diets, including pescatarian, vegetarian and those with chicken and fish as the only meat sources. When people opted for high-quality plant proteins, such as legumes, soy and nuts, as their main protein sources they had the lowest heart disease risk compared to people following other types of diets.
People who consumed diets high in red meat, interestingly enough, had similar total cholesterol levels and blood pressure, but their triglycerides were higher than those following other diets. Just like having high cholesterol, high triglycerides can increase your risk of heart disease.
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"Asking 'Is red meat good or bad?' is useless," said Meir Stampfer, M.D., Dr.P.H., senior author of the study, in a press release. "It has to be 'Compared to what?' If you replace burgers with cookies or fries, you don't get healthier. But if you replace red meat with healthy plant protein sources, like nuts and beans, you get a health benefit."
Several European governments, including Finland and the U.K., recommend restricting consumption of red and processed meats to less than 500 grams (or 17.5 ounces—just over 1 pound) per week. The American Institute for Cancer Research has a similar recommendation (18 ounces or less per week). The authors of the Harvard study encourage following a healthy vegetarian or Mediterranean-style diet for your health and for the environment.
More and more studies indicate the dangers of eating a diet high in red meat. Consider cutting back on meat consumption and incorporating more healthy plant-based proteins like beans, chickpeas, tempeh, tofu and nuts into your diet. Not only can this benefit your health, it may help the environment too.
Choosing a variety of protein sources is the best way to keep your heart healthy and achieve a well-balanced diet, and you don't have to eschew meat completely to reap the benefits. Get started with our 7-Day Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan or a try these vegetarian recipes out for Meatless Monday.