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Ditching a 50g serving of red meat for the equivalent number of calories from a plant source of protein was linked to as much as a 50 per cent cut in the likelihood of somebody dying from heart disease. The chance of dying of cancer was also almost halved.
For the average man the changes tracked by the study could mean replacing about 50g of steak with roughly 20g of Brazil nuts or 110g of brown rice.
The study looked at more than 37,000 Americans with an average age of 50. They were followed for about eight years each. During that time about 4,900 died. The researchers took information about diet and health and calculated the likely influence of small changes that substituted sources of protein derived from plants for meat.
Replacing one daily serving of any red meat for nuts — without increasing the number of calories a person ate — was linked to a 17 per cent lower risk of dying of a heart attack. Replacing one serving of red meat with the equivalent amount of whole grains — such as brown rice or bulgur wheat — cut the risk of dying of a heart attack in men by half.
“It isn’t enough just to avoid red meat, it’s also about what you choose to eat in place of red meat,” Zhilei Shan, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health in Boston, said.
“Healthy plant proteins like nuts, legumes and whole grains contain more than just protein — they include other beneficial nutrients such as healthy fats, antioxidant vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals [compounds derived from plants], which have been associated with lower risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.”
The researchers were confident that diet changes would benefit people’s health. However, their study was purely observational. That meant that it could not prove that swapping meat for nuts, wholegrains and legumes caused people to have better health. It may be that people who ate more of such foods were more fastidious about caring for themselves in general, including taking more exercise.
The results are due to be presented at a conference of the American Heart Association this week in Arizona.
A second study looked at replacing a daily serving of red meat — equivalent to 150g of steak — with 30g of nuts and also found similar sharp falls in cancer and heart disease.
“Our findings suggest that even partial replacement of red meat with healthy, plant-based sources of protein could substantially reduce rates of coronary heart disease,” Laila Al-Shaar, of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s cardiovascular epidemiology programme, said.
The results come amid evidence that Britons are eating less meat, for health and ecological reasons. One recent study found that more than 800,000 people cut back on eating animal products for at least a month last year, contributing to a steep fall in sales of red meat. Those moving towards a vegan diet for the first time consumed 3.6 million fewer animals in the first six months of 2019 in the UK, according to analysis by the charity Veganuary.
Making the change
For a person who eats about 2,500 calories a day the changes might involve swapping 50g of steak for roughly:
110g of brown rice (cooked)
150g of broad beans
150g of bulgarHealth