A new study of 12,168 people suggests that red meat eaters and people on diets high in refined carbs (white bread, sugar) are more likely to die, and more likely to have heart problems, than people who prefer to eat plants.
Plant-heavy diets aren't only about eating your vegetables, though: there's plenty of room for healthy fats like olive oil, protein sources including fish, beans, nuts, and seeds, as well as some cheese and chicken.
Eat your vegetables. It's advice anyone's grandmother might be accused of giving too often.
But a new study is providing fresh evidence that the age-old diet tip is sound.
A 29 year look at the eating habits of 12,168 middle-aged adults in the US published in the Journal of the American Heart Association earlier this month suggests that the plant munchers have a leg up over animal gobblers when it comes to long-term health.
"People should eat more vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fruits, legumes and fewer animal-based foods," study author Casey Rebholz said in a release.
In the US study, people who reported eating more vegetables and other plants (about 4 to 5 servings a day), and consuming little to no processed or red meat (less than a serving per day) had an average of 18 to 25% lower risk of death than people who routinely fuel up on meat and other animal products instead. The new study — which relied on individual interviews of both white and black adults over the age of 45 who were heart-disease-free when the study started (in 1987) — also found that plant-eaters tended to have healthier hearts: developing fewer heart attacks and strokes, and dying from heart issues less often than others.
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Plants can help our bodies fight off deadly diseases
This is just the latest evidence in a long lineup of data that suggests that meats (especially red meat) and other animal products which are high in saturated fats (like lard) are not the best diet staples for a long, healthy life. Other studies have suggested that cutting back to less than half a serving of red meat per day (defined as beef, lamb, or pork) could prevent about 1 in every 10 deaths. Processed meats, which include hot dogs, sausages, bacon, and lunch meats, are especially dangerous for human health, and clearly linked to more early deaths and more cancer cases too.
But this does not mean people must live on carrot sticks and cucumbers alone to be healthy. Mediterranean plant-based diets, which are some of the best for long-term health, include lots of olive oil, nuts and seeds, oily fish like salmon, and some cheese, yogurt, and chicken. Even potatoes, which were considered one of the less healthy plant foods, were associated with longer lives and healthier hearts in this new study.
While meat does provide bodies with lots of protein, there's no fiber in it at all, whereas veggies are notoriously fiber-rich and full of disease-fighting phytochemicals, too. Meaty diets are also not great for the planet, contributing to climate change more than other eating plans.
"It's bad for the person eating it, but also really bad for our children and our grandchildren," Harvard nutrition researcher Dr. Walter Willett recently told Business Insider of a meat-heavy diet plan. "So that's something I think we should totally, strongly advise against. It's — in fact — irresponsible."
(Earlier this month, scientists calculated that if everyone in the US stopped eating beef completely, the carbon footprint benefit would be equivalent to taking 60,000 cars off the road.)
Even though the study authors controlled for factors like age, race, activity and education level, alcohol consumption and smoking status, it is possible that there are other factors influencing the deadly meat-fueled trend besides what people are eating. Still, simply replacing a little meat with more plants each day can make a difference: lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, reducing inflammation, and prompting fewer cases of hanger from blood sugar dips and spikes.
Willett, who's been studying healthy eating for over three decades, doesn't suggest people stop eating meat entirely, though. Instead, he says eaters should prioritize protein sources including nuts, oily fish, and beans, while avoiding sugar and sticking to limited quantities of beef, pork, and sausage.