Meaty New Study: Plant Protein Eaters Live Longer

Ask most Americans where protein comes from, and they’ll probably respond “meat.”

But you can also get all the protein your body needs from plants—and you’ll live longer if you do, a substantial new study says.

The research, published this month in JAMA Internal Medicine, focused on more than 130,000 participants who are part of two long-term Harvard-based studies.

Study authors found that substituting 3 percent of daily calories from animal protein with plant protein was associated with a lower risk for death from all causes: a 34 percent drop when participants swapped out processed red meat for plant protein, and a 19 percent decrease when they replaced eggs.

By contrast, participants who increased their animal-source protein by 10 percent had an 8 percent higher risk of death from heart disease, and a 2 percent higher risk of death from all causes.

Interestingly, the study also notes that switching to a more plant-based diet is beneficial even for people with other bad health habits, including people who smoke, drink at least 14 grams of alcohol a day, are overweight or physically inactive.

The study has big implications, and the researchers note: “Public health recommendations should focus on improvement of protein sources.” The observational study supports a number of previous studies that also found big health benefits from reducing meat in your diet.

In the blue zones, and a few tips

The research certainly backs what we have learned in the world’s five blue zones regions, where people live notably longer and healthier lives than the rest of us. People in those pockets of the planet eat very little meat. Beans, whole grains, and garden vegetables are the cornerstones of their diet.

In Sardinia, Italy, for example, shepherds eat semolina flatbread in their pastures. On the Nicoyan peninsula in Costa Rica, corn tortillas are part of every meal. And for Adventists in California, fiber- and mineral-rich whole grains are a big part of their daily diet.

We know it can be tough to shift away from the meat-focused meals common in many U.S. households. But as the study found, small changes can make a big difference.

We offer a few tips:

  1. Eat four to six servings of vegetables a day – blue zone diets typically include two servings per meal.
  2. Eat more beans, which are a powerhouse source of nutrition and protein in the blue zones areas. Try making tofu — not meat — the focus of your lunches and dinners.
  3. Eat a handful of nuts each day, a habit that is associated with greater longevity.

For more recommendations, check out the 10 Blue Zones Food Guidelines. For recipes, see our website, and pick up a copy of The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones Solution.

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