Protein is an essential nutrient that helps us maintain every critical bodily function — from the hair that grows on our heads to the bones that make up our skeletons. Animal-sourced food products are very high in protein, but a recent study suggests that they may not be the healthiest compared to protein from plant-based foods.
According to the researchers who conducted this particular study, people who choose to eat more plant-based sources of protein may outlive those who choose to eat more animal products. This may even be the case for plant-based eaters who don’t have completely well-rounded healthy lifestyles, like smokers and heavy drinkers.
The researchers analyzed over 30 years worth of data from the Nurse’s Health Study (NHS) as well as 26 years worth of data from the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study (HPFS) — a total of over 3.5 million person-years. Over the course of the three decades or so from which the data was taken, over 36,000 of the study participants had passed away. About 9,000 died from cardiovascular disease, 13,000 died from cancer and 14,000 died from other causes.
Once the necessary adjustments were made to account for lifestyle variables that affected health, the researchers discovered that a higher rate of consumption of protein from meat or dairy products was linked to a higher risk of death. A higher rate of consumption of protein from grains, beans, nuts and legumes, on the other hand, was associated with a lower risk of death. In fact, a 10 percent reduction for risk of death was associated with every 3 percent increase in calories from plant-based protein.
The analysis didn’t stop there, however, and brings back at least a little bit of hope to those who aren’t strictly vegetarian or vegan. Upon closer examination, the researchers found that those who consumed higher amounts of protein from animal-sourced foods faced an increased risk of death only if they had one other major health risk or bad habit.
Those who chose to get their protein from more meat and dairy products but were also obese, underweight, sedentary, heavy drinkers or smokers were the ones who were particularly linked to a higher risk of death. Interestingly, meat and dairy eaters who maintained healthy lifestyles saw that high risk of death virtually disappear.
Further examination of specific sources of dietary protein also showed that the higher risk of death among animal-sourced protein eaters applied more so to those who consumed higher amounts of processed and unprocessed red meat — including beef and pork.Previous research has also shown moderate to positive association between processed meat consumption and risk of death.
This wasn’t so much the case for those who got most of their animal-sourced protein from poultry and fish. Even at nearly identical consumption levels of animal-sourced protein, those who ate more red meat had a tendency to fall into the “unhealthy” group while those who ate more poultry and fish fell into the “healthy” group.
So, while the findings of this particular study suggest that plant-based sources of protein are indeed healthier than animal protein, all is not lost for those who still choose to consume it. Animal products can help some people manage their weight better since they’re higher in protein compared to starchy plant-based protein sources.
This was the largest study to examine the effects of different sources of dietary protein and although it was purely observational, the researchers still recommend sticking with poultry and fish rather than red meat when choosing to eat animal products. Perhaps even more important than that is making sure to incorporate more plant-based foods in most meals and snacks, along with maintaining healthy lifestyle habits.