People with unhealthy lifestyles looking to live longer should swap bacon for beans – that’s the conclusion of a new report into the relative health credentials of plant and animal proteins. Research from the US has found that animal protein is associated with a higher risk of all-cause mortality in people with at least one other unhealthy lifestyle factor, such as obesity or smoking.
The study also found that eating plant protein instead of animal protein cuts the risk of premature death. Plant proteins – including beans, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains – have been shown to lower cholesterol and improve insulin sensitivity, though it still isn’t clear precisely why they are so much better for us than animal proteins.
Meat processing techniques – including the addition of salt, nitrites and nitrates – have been suggested as one reason for the link between animal proteins and early death, although such proteins are also found in unprocessed meat, dairy products, fish and eggs. The worst offender in terms of an association with an early death was a high consumption of red meat.
Based on data from two studies that tracked the diets and health of 131,000 health professionals in the US from 1976 and 1986 respectively, the research found eating animal protein was linked to an 8% higher risk of death and plant protein to a 10% lower risk.
The participants were found to consume an average 14 per cent of animal protein and 4 per cent of plant protein. The research showed that for people with at least one other unhealthy lifestyle factor, animal protein was found to have an association with higher mortality, particularly death from heart disease, and plant protein to have an association with lower mortality. Unhealthy lifestyle factors range from smoking and drinking too much to obesity, being too sedentary and not exercising enough.
“High animal protein intake was positively associated with mortality, and high plant protein intake was inversely associated with mortality, especially among individuals with at least one lifestyle risk factor,” the researchers said.
“Substitution of plant protein for animal protein, especially that from processed red meat, was associated with lower mortality, suggesting the importance of protein source.”
The study was published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine. Read it here