Animal vs. Vegetable: Does Protein Choice Matter?

by Jeanne Petrucci, MS, RDN

Many research studies have demonstrated that consuming a mostly whole-food, plant-rich diet is good for your health. Defining exactly how “plant-rich” a diet needs to be for optimal health continues to be debated. Could swapping out just some animal protein, particularly red meats, for plant proteins help you live longer?

According to recently published research in JAMA Internal Medicine, the answer may be yes. Researchers from Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health have explored this question by looking at the diets and lifestyles of 131,342 study participants. They found that the risk of early death was lower in those who consumed mostly plant proteins as compared to those whose main protein source was animal-derived.

The study found that replacing just 3% of your total animal protein intake with plant protein lowered overall risk of premature death, especially if the plant protein replaced processed meat. Researchers believe that this health-promoting effect may be attributed to the added benefits plant proteins confer – plant foods contain fiber and antioxidants, both known to help protect against certain diseases.

Additionally, the WHO [World Health Organization] recently distinguished processed meats and red meat as Group I and Group 2A carcinogens [cancer-causing in humans and probably cancer-causing in humans, respectfully]. Replacing these proteins with plant proteins might have the greatest impact on overall health and mortality.

These protein-rich plant foods are very satisfying:

  • Beans and legumes [chick peas, black beans, kidney beans, lentils]
  • Quinoa
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Whole soy products, such as tempeh, tofu, and edamame
  • Chia seeds

Making a commitment to consuming more plant proteins can be as easy as assigning certain days to be plant-based [think Meatless Mondays] or certain meals as plant-based [consuming a plant-based breakfast and lunch with high-quality animal protein at dinner]. Either way, researchers agree that increasing consumption of whole, plant-based foods in place of animal proteins, especially process red meats, may offer substantial health benefits.

Resource:  Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med. Published online August 01, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2016.4182.

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