Americans are obsessed with protein, even though research tells us we don't need to be. There is no shortage of protein in the standard American diet and protein deficiency is almost unheard of in this country. Yet a new study further clarifies that rather than worry about how much protein we are getting, we should be concerned with the source of our protein. Eat more plant-based protein and you reduce the risk of disease and premature mortality.

Titled “Association of Major Dietary Protein Sources With All‐Cause and Cause‐Specific Mortality: Prospective Cohort Study,” the study comes down to straightforward findings: Ditch animal proteins in favor of plant-based protein from legumes, nuts, seeds, vegetables and fruit, and you’ll live a healthier, longer life. The next time someone brings up how much protein a single food has, tell them that what matters more is the source of your protein. This study tells us that if you're seeking protein, eating plant-based sources will reduce your risk of premature mortality -- of any cause.

"Different dietary protein sources have varying associations with all‐cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, and dementia mortality," the study concludes. "Our findings support the need for consideration of protein sources in future dietary guidelines."

Published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in February, the longitudinal study tracked 102,521 postmenopausal women enrolled in the Women’s Health Initiative in the '90s and tracked their intake and overall health and disease rates for the next 30 years.

Swapping Animal Proteins for Plant-Based Can Help Improve Health

The data revealed that consuming plant-based protein was inversely associated with all‐cause mortality, including cardiovascular disease, dementia, and other causes of death. Whereas eating animal protein was associated with enhanced mortality risk on a variety of fronts.

“Among major protein sources, comparing the highest with the lowest [amount] of consumption, processed red meat or eggs was associated with a higher risk of all‐cause mortality," the study found. "Unprocessed red meat, eggs, or dairy products, were associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.”

The researchers also found that egg consumption was associated with a higher risk of cancer deaths, whereas consumption of processed red meat (such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham and bologna, and the like) was associated with a higher risk of dementia death.

When considering their findings in a manner referred to as substitution analysis, scientists found that substituting plant protein for animal protein was associated with a lower risk of all‐cause mortality, cardiovascular disease mortality, and dementia mortality, and substitution of total red meat, eggs, or dairy products with nuts was associated with a lower risk of all‐cause mortality.

How to Use This Research to Improve Your Own Diet

So what do nutritionists make of these findings? Eat more plant-based, whole-foods and you get all the protein you need, from sources that are healthier for you than animal sources. “This study is very interesting and highlights the fact that we should all be eating more plant proteins and less processed red meat since the study, found that eating more plant proteins may lower your risk of death from heart disease and dementia,” comments Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, Connecticut (Gorin was not associated with the research).

Nutritionist Jinan Banna, Ph.D., RD, adds, “We know that plant sources of protein provide important nutrients that animal sources don't, such as particular antioxidants. These findings add to a body of evidence on the potential benefits of emphasizing plant-based foods in the diet for health,” noting that additional research regarding protein sources and health is needed.

“When it comes to adding more plant protein to your plate, I suggest adding in a variety of sources such as tofu, edamame, pulses, nuts, seeds, and quinoa,” she continues, adding that you can also sneak in plant protein from desserts, as in her chickpea chocolate cookie dough. We’ll never turn down the chance to eat more cookie dough. Catch you on the plant-side.

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