Eating more plant protein and dairy instead of red meat may improve heart health

In two new studies, researchers found that eating more protein from plant sources or dairy while reducing red meat consumption could help people live longer.

In a study of more than 37,000 Americans with an average age of 50, researchers found those who ate the most plant protein were 27% less likely to die of any cause and 29% less likely to die of coronary heart disease.

Keeping the number of calories the participants ate consistently, the researchers were able to estimate the amount of plant protein compared to animal protein people in the study ate and compare it to the risk of dying. They found that:

Replacing 5% of daily calories from total animal protein with the equivalent number of calories of plant protein was linked to a nearly 50% decrease in the risk of dying of any cause including coronary heart disease; and

Replacing 2% of daily calories from processed meat protein with an equivalent number of calories from plant protein was associated with a 32% lower risk of death.

The team says it isn’t enough just to avoid red meat – it’s also about what you choose to eat in place of red meat.

Healthy plant proteins like nuts, legumes, and whole grains contain more than just protein – they include other beneficial nutrients such as healthy fats, antioxidant vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (compounds derived from plants), which have been associated with a lower risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers.

In the second study, researches found substituting one serving per day of red or processed red meat with foods, such as nuts, legumes, whole grains or dairy, was linked to up to a 47% lower risk of having coronary heart disease in men.

In addition, replacing one daily serving of any type of red meat with an equivalent amount of nuts – without increasing the number of calories a person ate – was linked to a 17% lower risk of dying of a heart attack.

And, replacing one serving of red meat with whole grains resulted in a 48% lower risk of dying of heart attack in men.

The findings suggest that even partial replacement of red meat with healthy, plant-based sources of protein could substantially reduce rates of coronary heart disease in the United States.

Beginning in 1986, and for up to 26 years, 43,259 participants in Harvard’s Health Professionals Follow-up Study, who are all male, completed a questionnaire about their diet every four years through 2010. The study accounted for multiple medical and dietary risk factors.

The American Heart Association recommends dietary patterns that emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts – and limits processed red meat and sugary drinks.

Many dietary patterns could work within this broad framework. Eating more plant protein –in place of red meat, especially processed red meat, appears to be a good strategy for a healthier diet and better health.

The study findings are presented at the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention | Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health Scientific Sessions.

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