If we are what we eat, we are a whole lot healthier when they choose plants over animal products, according to a pair of new studies involving some 70,000 people.
The studies, presented this week at the American Heart Association's conference on lifestyle and cardiometabolic health, show that getting more calories from plants, and less from red meat, reduces a person's chances of developing potentially fatal heart conditions, including heart disease.
While the research is preliminary, the studies involve some 70,000 participants, suggesting that their findings may be applicable across broad groups of people. The research also reveals just how much of your diet you need to change to get the heart-health benefits.
In the first study, researchers surveyed health and diet data from 37,000 Americans over the age of 50.
The data were drawn from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which spanned 1999 to 2014, and the National Death Index.
People who ate the most plant protein were 29 percent less likely to die of coronary heart disease compared to the general population, the study suggests.
The benefits didn't stop at heart health, either: When people got more of their calories from plants than they did animal products, they had a lower risk of dying from any cause.
And it doesn’t take much to make a difference. Swapping in plants for just 5 percent of the calories you usually get from meat may reduce your odds of dying of any cause, including heart disease, by nearly 50 percent.
Exactly what food you swap meat out for matters, too, the researchers say.
"It isn't enough just to avoid red meat, it's also about what you choose to eat in place of red meat,” said lead study author Zhilei Shan, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University.
That means nuts, legumes, and whole grains — plant-based protein sources, but ones that also contain healthy fats and antioxidants, are best, the data suggest.
Aside from not being peer-reviewed, the study does not take into account any changes people may have made after taking the survey — but the large sample and extended timeframe are pluses, the authors say.
Linking plant protein and heart disease
If swapping animals out for plants offers health gains, what are the risks of sticking with red meat?
In the second study, also preliminary, researchers analyze 26 years-worth of data from 43,000 men. The study participants completed surveys every four years from 1986 to 2010, answering questions about their diet and medical history.
They find that eating more meat is associated with higher instance of coronary heart disease.
Switching out one serving per day of red meat with nuts, legumes, whole grains, or even dairy, was linked to a 47 percent drop in risk of coronary heart disease.
Americans eat an average of 3.5 servings of red meat per week, according to study lead author Laila Al-Shaar, also a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard. And about a third of people eat red meat every day.
“Our 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," Al-Shaar said in a statement.
But, again, there are limitations to this study, too: The participants, aside from being all male, also belonged to a similar sociodemographic group, meaning the findings may not apply to a more diverse population.
Earth benefits, too
Making more conscious choices about what you put on your plate may not only hold benefits for your health, but for the planet's health, too. Climate scientists warn about the dangers of animal agriculture, which stresses the environment and contributes to climate change.
A November 2019 study found that humans can benefit themselves, the planet, and animal welfare by making the kind of substitutions that the American Heart Association suggests in these studies. Beyond just red meat, surprising junk foods, like cookies and potato chips, also have a heavy carbon footprint, the 2019 research shows.
Whether your motivation is your own health or the planet’s, the evidence is mounting: red meat is out, plants are in.
As Inverse reported in 2019, education will be key to making these changes to your diet into a habit.
“It may help to educate people about nutrition and to offer much more plant-based meals in canteens to familiarize people with new food,” Laura Scherer, assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands and lead author on the 2019 study, told Inverse. We can but try.