Swapping animal sources of protein for plant based protein could possibly be linked to a longer lifespan, new studies suggest.

The research was funded by the US National Institute of Health and carried out by health professionals across a wide range of institutions, including The Department of Medicine at Harvard University, The University of Southern California and Italy’s Institute of Molecular Oncology. More than 130,000 individual cases were looked into as part of this study and the findings were published in the JAMA Internal Medicine journal.


The risks associated with animal protein

According to the results of this recent research, people with a higher intake of animal protein than plant protein are 8% more at risk of of mortality. The most common causes of death for those with a high amount of animal protein in their diet are cardiovascular diseases and heart attacks. Red meat was found to be the protein most closely associated with death and heart problems.

The link between lower mortality rates and a higher intake of plant protein emphasises the importance of reducing red meat intake and increasing plant based nutrition. This supports the current national advice which is to limit consumption of red meat to a maximum of 70g per day.

It is important to note, however, that the increased risk of death as a result of high meat intake is also directly correlated to pre-existing conditions. This means that the results of this study mainly applies to those who have at least one other unhealthy lifestyle factor, for example, smoking, lack of exercise, large intake of alcohol or obesity.


What is the difference?

The main difference between animal (meat) and plant (vegetables, legumes, soy etc) based protein is the amount of amino acid that they each contain.

Some nutritionists believe that animal protein is better for us as the protein found in meat has a higher balance of amino acids, while plant proteins can be low in the acids methionine, tryptophan, lycine and isoleucine.

However, this latest study would suggest that our bodies react best to vegetarian sources of protein and a large amount of plant foods can lower the risks of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.


Why protein is so important

Protein is one of the most important parts of a balanced, healthy diet. Around 20% of every person’s body is made up of protein, but as the body is unable to store protein for prolonged periods of time, it is essential to top up on your fill of protein every day.

When meat or plant based foods are eaten, the protein in them is broken down into all of the separate essential amino acids. These acids are then used for all of the energy and metabolic processes of the body.

The benefits of eating a protein-rich diet can be seen in almost every aspect of health and fitness. Amino acids are essential for building both strong muscle tissue and bone marrow. Red blood cells also rely on protein levels to transport oxygen around the body. As well as these internal benefits, high levels of the protein, keratin, can keep hair, nails and skin looking healthy and strong.


How to get more plant protein

It can be difficult knowing how to get a good amount of protein in your diet without risking eating too much fatty or meaty food. Charlotte Sterling-Reed is a nutrition consultant for SR nutrition.

She suggests eating lots of legumes such as beans and peas, grains like quinoa and rice and plenty of nuts and butter. Nutritional experts like Charlotte aren’t advocating that everyone stops eating meat. Instead, she suggests trying ‘meatless Mondays’ just once a week to cut down your intake.