When asked why vegetarians avoid meat, the most common reason given is for their health, according to a study from UC Davis. New research suggests that they are onto something. A study out of the University of Birmingham found that eating more plant-based, especially lentils, beans, and legumes, shifts the gut microbiome to be healthier and sets you up for a cascade of positive health effects, as well as lower risk of disease.

Researchers from the University of Birmingham and Newcastle University found that a specific carbohydrate associated with plant proteins helps keep gut bacteria healthy which in turn has an enormous impact on your ability to fight heart disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and even some cancers.

The study notes that fruit and vegetables remain the best source of nutrients for a healthy gut microbiome, but these complex carbohydrates, N-glycans, feed gut microbes. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides evidence that plant-based proteins can effectively replace traditional animal-derived protein sources.

“We are still learning the role our gut plays in our overall health and so learning how microbes in our gut are able to use plant N-glycans is vital,” David Bolam, co-lead author of the study, said. “This has developed our knowledge both in terms of understanding how these sugars are broken down by the microbiota, but also to discover new enzymes that could be used to alter and analyze N-glycan structures for medical and industrial applications.”

The study aims to offer insight into how plant proteins help maintain a healthy gut microbiome. While research has previously analyzed the existence of complex carbohydrates, no analysis regarding their relationship with the gut microbiome had been conducted until now. The results indicate that incorporating more plant N-glycans can help strengthen the gut's microbiome, therefore improving the immune's systems ability to prevent diseases.

These researchers will use this data to understand how plant proteins can be best incorporated into diets to protect the gut and digestion system. The study will also help provide tools to modify plant N-glycans to mitigate allergic responses.

“The gut microbiome is an incredibly important feature for human health, and this finding will enable us to better understand the microbiome,” Lucy Crouch, the study’s lead author, said. “By identifying the particular enzymes that these microbes use to digest their food, we can consider how future diets can be developed that promote a healthy gut, and as a result improve our general health.”

Plant-Based Diet and Gut Health

This study joins a growing body of research indicating that plant protein consumption can improve overall health, strengthen the immune system, and extend longevity. Last March, another study found that eating more plant-based for a healthy gut is essential for longer life. By fostering the presence of “good” bacteria with high fiber food consumption (such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds), plant-centric diets can help lead to longer lives, according to the research.

This March, research published in the National Library of Medicine found that gut health and metabolism are compromised by a high-fat diet. Even on a plant-based diet, it is essential to limit fat consumption to maintain healthy microbiota. A recent study revealed the average person eats nearly twice as much protein as the USDA recommends, noting the imbalance of fiber and fat contents between plant versus animal protein sources.

Plant Protein Builds Muscle

Eating plant protein will not compromise muscle-building abilities either. Plenty of consumers, especially men, express doubts about plant-based diets and protein when discussing muscle building and exercise. However, a study from January found that plant-based protein consumption supplemented with soy can build the same muscle mass as animal-based foods while maintaining a healthier gut.

“A high-protein, exclusively plant-based diet (plant-based whole foods plus soy protein isolate supplementation) is not different than a protein-matched mixed diet (mixed whole foods plus  whey protein supplementation) in supporting muscle strength and mass accrual, suggesting that protein source does not affect resistance training-induced adaptations in untrained young men consuming adequate amounts of protein,” the researchers wrote at the time.

Bottom Line: Eat More Plant-Based Proteins for Better Gut Health

Swapping out meat for plant-based proteins such as legumes, pulses and soy products shifts the gut microbiome to be healthier, which in turn leads to better immunity and lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and even certain cancers tied to being overweight.

Check out The Beet's 20 best foods to eat for gut health, weight loss, immunity, and mood. 

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