5 Ways Avoiding Meat Improves Heart Health, According to Studies

|Updated Feb 18, 2022
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By now, you've likely heard that eating red meat and processed meats like bacon are bad for you, but do you know why? And what is the optimal diet to be heart-healthy and live longer? The latest studies tell us how eating meat can lead to heart disease and calculate exactly how much lifespan you can gain by going even partly plant-based, even if you are not going completely vegan. According to the latest research, even a partly plant-based diet starting at any age can help you live longer – both because you are eating more plant foods and because you're avoiding saturated fat.

Here is exactly how these incremental dietary changes can benefit you, now and over the long-term, even if you start later in life and don't go all the way plant-based. It's scientifically proven that small daily improvements in your diet have big, lasting results.

Remember that heart disease, which kills over 650,000 Americans a year, shows up not only as a heart attack or stroke, but as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and high blood lipids, which are all markers for having a cardiovascular disease event in your future, something you'd rather avoid. The latest studies all concur on one thing: The more plant-based you go, and the less red and processed meat you eat, the better.

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1. Eating more plant-based helps you live longer

The latest proof that plant-based eating helps you live longer comes out of Norway, where researchers modeled dietary habits over the decades and calculated that a plant-based diet – even one that is only partially plant-based – can add years to your life. Start eating plant-based in your 20s and you could add well over a decade to your expected lifespan of up to 13 years for men and about 11 years for women.

The optimized diet is “substantially higher intake than a typical diet of whole grains, legumes, fish, fruits, vegetables, and included a handful of nuts while reducing red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains.” A more feasible approach is halfway between optimal and the typical Western diet high in meat and dairy. What they found:

  • An American woman who switches from a Western diet to an optimized diet at age 20 can increase her life expectancy between 10.7 and 12.3 years.
  • An American man who switches to an optimized diet at age 20 could gain even more, or about 13 years.
  • A 60-year-old who adopts the optimized diet can prolong their life expectancy by 8.8 years.
  • An 80-year-old who eats the optimized diet can also see gains; it could extend their life expectancy by approximately 3.4 years.
  • If you take a "feasible" approach of mostly plant-based you could gain about 5.4 years.

Partly plant-based still helps

If individuals can't or won't go fully plant-based, however, there are still benefits to making an effort to be flexitarian or a more feasible approach that is "halfway between the Western and optimized diets." So trying to be more plant-based is better than not trying at all.

Bottom line: Adopting a flexitarian diet is a healthier way to eat and is more feasible for many people who can't go fully plant-based. It can improve life expectancy by 7 percent, which would gain you about 5.4 years over the current US lifespan of 78-years. Plan your 85th!

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2. Avoiding saturated fat lowers heart disease risk

Studies have shown that a diet high in red and processed meat like hot dogs and salami – or pepperoni on your pizza – lowers your life expectancy by increasing your risk of heart disease. The key is avoiding saturated fat, which comes from animal products such as meat and dairy, says Dr. Joel Kahh, respected plant-based cardiologist, Clinical Professor of Medicine at Wayne State University School of Medicine, founder of the Kahn Center for Cardiac Longevity in Bingham Farms, Mich., and author of The Whole Heart Solution.

A review study published in The Cochrane Library in 2020 looked at the relationship between dietary saturated fat and cardiovascular diseases (CVD) such as heart attacks, strokes, and sudden death. They examined 15 high-quality randomized controlled trials involving about 59,000 subjects with data on diet and CVD events.

This review "demonstrated unequivocally that reducing dietary saturated fat lowered the risk of combined CVD events by 21 percent," Dr. Kahn wrote at the time. "That may not sound like a lot, but in scientific terms it's huge."

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3. Going plant-based helps in the short term and long-term

It doesn't take a lifetime for the benefits of a mostly plant-based diet to show up. In a study on the short-term and long-term gains of avoiding red meat and eating legumes and other plants instead, the researchers concluded that going plant-based lowers cholesterol fastest, and it stays lower over time. The longer the individuals stay on a plant-based lifestyle program, the lower their LDL or so-called bad cholesterol.

In another example of how quickly your LDL cholesterol can drop when you choose a diet that is fully plant-based and devoid of all animal products, The Game Changers, a 2019 documentary about what happens when elite athletes switched to a whole-food, plant-based diet, showcased filmmakers asking a group of firefighters to go fully plant-based for one week. The ones who succeeded witnessed their cholesterol drop in as short a time as one week!

The reason for this is that a whole-food plant-based diet (devoid of oils) can result in a rapid drop in your total cholesterol as much as 100 mg/dl, which Dr. Kahn characterizes as a significant shift without the use of statins. (As always, The Beet encourages you to see your practitioner before you make any changes to your diet or medications.)

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4. Two studies find that eating plant-based helps – whenever you start

Two separate studies were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association that showed plant-based diets, when started early, can lower the risk of disease 30 years later. That ship has sailed? Well, the other study found that among postmenopausal women the benefits were equally dramatic.

The study called Plant‐Centered Diet and Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease During Young to Middle Adulthood tracked nearly 5,0000 subjects 19 to 30 starting back in the '80s and concluded that eating a plant-centered diet in young adulthood lowered the risk in middle age for heart attack, stroke, heart failure, and several other cardiovascular conditions.

A second study that tracked over 123,000 women between 1993 and 2017 found that eating plant-based foods can lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease in postmenopausal women. They followed what's known as the "Portfolio Diet" consisting of high-fiber foods like vegetables, nuts, and soy protein that are known to lower cholesterol.

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5. Eating red meat can lead to damage of the heart muscle

A new study out of England that shows eating red meat can be harmful to your heart by changing the size, shape, texture, and function of your heart muscle. It's the most definitive study yet directly linking a diet high in red meat to heart damage – and it showed a direct link between a meat-heavy diet and heart disease. The other proven ways meat and saturated fat lead to cardiovascular disease are by raising LDL cholesterol and blood lipids, causing blockages of the arteries which can lead to high blood pressure, heart attack, or stroke.

Because the new study looked at cardiovascular magnetic resonance (CMR) imagery of the heart muscle of 200,000 individuals, they were able to see changes in the size, shape, texture, and pumping function of the heart, and found that these were altered among individuals who ate more red meat. The researchers also found a lack of healthy elasticity in the blood vessels, and the harder the arteries are, the harder it is for your heart to pump blood through them.

This study was like finding a smoking gun, linking red meat and processed meat (which the World Health Organization classifies as a class 1 carcinogen in the same category as smoking cigarettes). Before this, the belief was that saturated fat caused high cholesterol, which in turn produced an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. Here was the visual evidence that your heart itself gets less and less healthy the more meat you eat.

The researchers acknowledged that the changes in the size and shape of the ventricles could be due to the fact that high cholesterol causes blockages and obstructions that then can cut off oxygen to the heart muscle and make it harder to pump blood. In any case, the findings lead to the conclusion that the more red meat you eat, the worse it is for your heart.

The study of data from nearly 20,000 individuals in England is just the latest study to confirm that red meat is bad for you, but this time the researchers found out why. They used imaging to look at the areas of the heart like the ventricles, which are key indicators of heart health.

What to eat instead of red meat: Easy  plant-based swaps

Rather than lament the loss of red meat in your heart-healthy diet, instead add in delicious, easy, and satisfying swaps. You know that you should eat the quinoa salad with chickpeas instead of a BLT or cheeseburger and fries at lunch, but did you know there are delicious substitutes for pork and bacon? Here are easy swaps to satisfy every meat craving.

Here Are 7  Plant-Based Meat Substitutes to Satisfy Any Carnivore

1. The Best Veggie Burgers

2. The Best Bacon Substitutes

3. The Best Plant-Based Pork Products

4. How to Make a Pulled "Pork" Jackfruit Sandwich

5. The Best Veggie Bacon Recipe, from Gordon Ramsay

6. A BBQ Mushroom Steak You'll Love from Chef Derek Sarno

7. The Beet's Best Mushroom Burger Recipe

Bottom Line: Eat More Plant-Based and Less Red Meat to Have a Healthier Heart

If you are concerned about heart health, there are several ways that a diet high in fiber-filled vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds can benefit your heart. Studies have proven you will live longer and have a healthier heart if you swap out red meat for plant protein.

For more helpful content on how to be heart-healthier check out The Beet's Health & Nutrition stories.