Replacing Red Meat With Plant-Based Diet May Reduce Risk of Heart Disease
Switching from red meat to high-quality plant foods like beans, nuts, and soy may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), according to a study published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) in December.1 A large body of previous research links eating large amounts of red meat, in particular processed red meat such as hot dogs, bacon, and salami, to an increased risk of death and chronic illness, including CHD.
After examining the relationship between total, processed, and unprocessed red meat and the risk of CHD, the researchers suggest that substituting whole grains and dairy products for red meat, and eggs for processed red meat, might also lower the risk.
According to the American Heart Association, red meats generally have more saturated fat than chicken, fish, and vegetable proteins.2 Saturated and trans fats are sometimes known as “bad” fats because they can raise blood cholesterol levels and make heart disease worse.
Researchers looked at data from 43,272 U.S. men, with an average age of 53, who were free from cardiovascular disease and cancer when they enrolled. As part of the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, the participants completed a diet questionnaire in 1986 and every four years thereafter, until 2016. During this period, 4,456 CHD events were recorded, of which 1,860 were fatal.
After accounting for other cardiovascular disease risk factors, the researchers found that for every one serving per day, total red meat was associated with a 12% higher risk of CHD. Unprocessed red meat had an 11% higher risk, and processed red meat carried a 15% higher risk. On the other hand, they found a 14% lower risk of CHD with intake of one serving per day of combined plant protein sources, including nut, legumes, and soy, compared to red meat.
A lower risk of CHD was also identified when whole grains and dairy products—like milk, cheese, and yogurt—replaced total red meat and eggs replaced processed red meat.
There is now evidence from both short term studies looking at the effect of red meat on blood cholesterol levels, and from long term studies of people followed for several decades, that replacing red meat in our diets with healthy plant sources of protein like nuts, beans, and soy foods will reduce risk of heart attacks. — Walter C. Willett, PhD
Why Is This Study Important?
“This was the first study in men to directly estimate the effect of replacing red meat with alternative protein sources on the risk of heart disease,” says Walter C. Willett, Ph.D., one of the authors of the BMJ study and a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“There is now evidence,” he says, “from both short term studies looking at the effect of red meat on blood cholesterol levels, and from long term studies of people followed for several decades, that replacing red meat in our diets with healthy plant sources of protein like nuts, beans, and soy foods will reduce risk of heart attacks.”
Willett says the results weren’t surprising. “We had seen similar findings in women, and also when we looked at risks of diabetes, stroke, and total mortality as the outcomes,” he says.
I recommend my patients reduce their red meat intake as part of an overall plan focusing on lifestyle changes to increase longevity and decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Reducing the amount of red meat in your diet can only be beneficial. — Leonard Pianko, MD
The BMJ study was an observational study, meaning the researchers couldn’t establish cause—nor could they completely rule out the possibility that other factors not measured as part of the study might have influenced their results. It’s also important to be aware that the men who took part in the study were mainly white health professionals, so the findings may not apply beyond those parameters.
It’s difficult to quantify and generalize these results,” says Aventura, Fla. cardiologist Leonard Pianko, MD “But the bottom line is that tweaking your diet to include less red meat and more plant-based protein or eggs and dairy is something that men, or anyone with cardiac risk factors, should consider.”
“There are many benefits of shifting toward a plant-focused diet, even if you don’t go all the way to being a vegan,” Willett adds.
What Do Doctors Recommend?
While doctors will consider all available research before making recommendations to patients for heart health, every patient is different. “My recommendations to my patients tend to be very personalized, based on their histories and the details of their lives they’ve shared during office visits,” Dr. Pianko says.
When a patient has an elevated cholesterol count or has a number of cardiac risk factors, he generally recommends lifestyle changes in addition to any medications prescribed.
“I recommend my patients reduce their red meat intake as part of an overall plan focusing on lifestyle changes to increase longevity and decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease. Reducing the amount of red meat in your diet can only be beneficial,” he says. “But it is part of an overall targeted plan to promote patient success and compliance.”
For optimum heart health, Dr. Pianko recommends making consciously healthy choices, integrating fruit, vegetables, nuts, legumes, soy, and healthy oils into your diet on a more frequent basis, and monitoring the results with lab work in your doctor’s office.
What This Means For You
With so many plant-based options on the supermarket shelves, and the ever-increasing availability of plant-based foods in restaurants, it’s never been easier to switch to plant-based alternatives for red meat. However, it doesn’t necessarily mean totally cutting meat from your diet. Your doctor or dietitian can help you work out an eating plan that suits you.
It’s important to seek immediate medical attention if you have any of the warning signs of heart failure.3 These include shortness of breath, persistent coughing or wheezing, swelling in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen, and heart palpitations. Make an appointment with your doctor if you’ve noticed any change in your health that concerns you.