Processed red meat related to higher risk of death, plant protein to lower risk

A plate of red and processed meats, including salami and ham

Did you grow up with a parent who would fill half your dinner plate with meatloaf, chanting the importance of eating enough protein to grow big and strong? A new study published in the Aug 1 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine suggests that a bowl of lentils and quinoa may have done you more good than that meatloaf.

The study reviewed protein intakes of more than 131,000 women and men from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study. After tracking their diets for up to 32 years, the authors found that a higher intake of red meat, especially processed versions (sausage, bacon, hot dogs, salami), was linked to a higher risk of death, while a higher protein intake from plant foods carried a lower risk. These plant proteins appeared the most protective from heart disease deaths, especially among participants with at least one of the following unhealthy lifestyle habits: smoking, heavy alcohol intake, overweight or obesity, and physical inactivity.

“Overall, our findings support the importance of the sources of dietary protein for long-term health outcomes,” says Mingyang Song, MD, ScD, a research fellow in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, and at Massachusetts General Hospital. “While previous studies have primarily focused on the overall amount of protein intake, from a broad dietary perspective, the particular foods that people consume to get protein are most important.”

The authors suggest swapping red and processed meat with healthy, plant proteins like nuts, beans, legumes, and cereals. If you do eat animal protein, choose mostly poultry and fish, which were not related to premature death in this study.

Vegetarians may rejoice over these findings, but if you’re skeptical of tofu, try these tips to gradually add more plant protein into your diet.

  • Make a meatless version of your favorite chili recipe by replacing the meat with plenty of beans: hearty kidney beans, chickpeas, or pinto beans.
  • Add 3 tablespoons of hemp seeds to your breakfast yogurt or oatmeal.
  • Add ½ cup rinsed, drained canned beans to your salads.
  • Instead of cheese, try hummus onto your sandwiches. Instead of processed meats, spread almond, peanut, or sunflower seed butter on whole grain toast.

Feeling more adventurous? Try one of these recipes using nuts, seeds, beans or tofu.

– Learn more about the benefits of incorporating healthy protein into your diet
– Coverage from The Washington Post, featuring Mingyang Song

Song, M., Fung, T.T., Hu, F.B., et al. Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern MedPublished online August 01, 2016.