Eating More Plant Protein Can Undo Years Of Unhealthy Habits

Could a plant-based diet help offset years of unhealthy habits? A new study has found that sourcing more of your protein from a vegetarian diet might be the best way to nullify years of problem vices like smoking, heavy drinking or downing a whole bag of salt and vinegar chips on the car ride home.

By now, you’ve probably heard the many benefits of eating a vegetarian diet. A lot of the current conversation is focused on the environmental effects of eating less meat – like how animal agriculture is responsible for over 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, or how the land used to farm animals is roughly the size of Africa, and over 70% of all fresh water consumption is used to make our favourite meaty meals. Yikes.

When it comes to the health benefits of vegetarianism, countless studies have already shown how plant-based eating is recognised as not only nutritionally sufficient, but also a way to reduce the risk for many chronic illnesses. If that news hasn’t coerced you to cut back on meat (even just a little bit #meatfreemonday) then a new study might just push you over the edge.

Plants > meat

A team of researchers at Harvard University just completed a huge study of over 130,000 people over several decades, analysing everything from diet and exercise, lifestyle habits, stress and hereditary factors. At the start of the study, the average participant was 49-years-old, so as you would imagine, after several decades 36,000 participants passed away – roughly 8850 of cardiovascular disease, and about 13,000 of cancer.

The study took into account lifestyle factors like smoking, drinking, obesity and physical inactivity, and then oversaw the amount of plant protein in their diets. The resulting data found that there was a 10% lower risk of death during the study period for every 3% increase in calories from plant protein.

Interestingly, for every 10% increase in the proportion of calories from animal protein, there was an associated 2% higher risk of death from any cause, and an 8% increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease during the study period. The study also concluded that the association between animal protein and mortality was even stronger if that person was obese or a heavy drinker.


The garnished pineapple makes the cocktail healthier, right?

But, what’s so wrong with my red meat?

I hear ya – red meat has long been associated with iron, vitamin B12 and protein, which are all good for you. But it’s the fatty red meats and processed meats that cause most of the issues.

The real risk of morality from animal protein is largely tied to processed meat, the study found. Fatty red meats and many processed meats are high in saturated fat, which raises LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol, and increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

The study noted that on the flip-side, animal protein didn’t appear to link to higher mortality for people with a healthy lifestyle. Accordingly for those people, eating more plant protein didn’t necessarily seem tied to a longer life either.

So what can we learn from this?

Well if you’ve got a penchant for alcohol, cigarettes or laying about on your couch for long periods of time, an increase in plant protein should lead to a healthier overall lifestyle. But as Well+Good point out, the study’s findings aren’t a free pass to indulge in your favourite vices, especially if you’re trying to avoid cancer and death (obvs).

Researchers found that “any statistically significant protein-mortality associations were restricted to participants with at least one of the unhealthy behaviours, including smoking, heavy alcohol intake, overweight or obesity, and physical inactivity.” So maybe keep that gym membership for a little while longer.

If the above has convinced you to give vegetarianism a go (even just for every other day) here are some excellent vego reading materials to help out:

Rebecca Russo is a freelance writer, editor, community radio dabbler, occasional hiker and celebrity autobiography enthusiast. She has written for online publications including Junkee, AWOL, Fashion Journal and Tone Deaf. Find her online here.