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Is It Better to Get Protein from Plants or Animals?

People getting most of their protein from plants and consuming a healthful plant-based diet are more likely to live longer and less likely to get diabetes.
Soy milk or soya milk and soy beans on wooden table.

Proponents of a vegetarian diet frequently have to respond to public anxiety that you can’t get enough protein from plants. However, there is growing evidence that a plant-based diet has health advantages compared to one based on animal protein.

A Japanese Study Favors Protein from Plants:

Researchers in Japan recruited more than 70,000 healthy volunteers who were 45 to 74 years of age (JAMA Internal Medicine, online, Aug. 26, 2019). They followed these volunteers for an average of 18 years. The people who consumed more plant protein and less animal protein were less likely to suffer heart attacks or get cancer.

In conclusion, the authors write:

“Our study suggests that encouraging diets with higher plant-based protein intake may contribute to long-term health and longevity.”

Plant-Based Diet and Diabetes:

According to previous research, people following a plant-based diet are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes (PLoS Medicine, June 14, 2016). Harvard scientists reached this conclusion by analyzing data from the Nurses’ Health Studies and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. A total of 200,000 men and women answered detailed questions about their diets every two to four years. Those who followed a healthy plant-based diet were about half as likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. In comparison, those who consumed more animal protein and highly processed foods had less favorable outcomes.

Researchers also reviewed nine studies including a total of 307,099 participants (JAMA Internal Medicine, online July 22, 2019). Their analysis showed that people getting their protein from plants were less likely to suffer from type 2 diabetes. Significantly, the protection was strongest for those eating plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts. The investigators reach conclusions compatible with those of the Japanese scientists.

They write:

“Plant-based dietary patterns, especially when they are enriched with healthful plant-based foods, may be beneficial for the primary prevention of type 2 diabetes.”

Plant-Based Diet and Heart Disease:

Type 2 diabetes contributes to cardiovascular mortality. Consequently, it’s no surprise that people consuming primarily protein from plants are less likely to have heart disease. Once again, Harvard scientists analyzed dietary data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. People consuming healthful plant foods were less likely to experience heart disease (Journal of the American College of Cardiology, July 25, 2017). Consequently, the experts recommend people try to eat more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes. In addition, we should avoid foods such as sweetened beverages, refined grains, potatoes or fries and sweets. 

Eating Protein from Plants at a Fast-Food Franchise:

Some consumers have become excited about the option of a plant-based “burger” from their favorite fast-food franchise. Is this a healthful option? Harvard scientists commented on this idea in JAMA (August 26, 2019). While they concede that plant-based meat alternatives may be better for the planet, they question how healthful these foods may be. Such non-meat burgers are highly processed to achieve the texture and flavor of meat. We do not have long-term studies to show whether people eating plant burgers at fast food chains have better health than those eating meat. 

Learn More:

If you want to try getting your protein from plants more than animals, you may want to listen to Show 1051. In it, we discuss how vegetarians can get all the nutrients they need.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Budhathoki S et al, "Association of animal and plant protein intake with all-cause and cause-specific mortality." JAMA Internal Medicine, online, Aug. 26, 2019. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.2806
  • Satija A et al, "Plant-based dietary patterns and incidence of type 2 diabetes in US men and women: Results from three prospective cohort studies." PLoS Medicine, June 14, 2016. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1002039
  • Qian F et al, "Association between plant-based dietary patterns and risk of type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis." JAMA Internal Medicine, online July 22, 2019. DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2019.2195
  • Satija A et al, "Healthful and unhealthful plant-based diets and the risk of coronary heart disease in U.S. adults." Journal of the American College of Cardiology, July 25, 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2017.05.047
  • Hu F et al, "Can plant-based meat alternatives be part of a healthy and sustainable diet? JAMA, online Aug. 26, 2019. doi:10.1001/jama.2019.13187
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The data here bothers me. It’s not comparing apples to apples and there is no mention of WHAT kind of plant proteins were compared to what kind of animal proteins. For instance, were the participants eating mostly soy? Were they mostly men? How was their thyroid function and energy level? Were the meat-eaters mostly people who eat at Mcdonalds or beef eaters? I would like to know if you took all these people and fed half of them beans (excluding soy) and half of them organic/free range chicken AND made them eat the same amount of vegetables and fruits and grains, then what would the results be? Some vegetarians eat very few vegetables and live on starches and sugars. Some meat-eaters have small amounts of very healthy meats in their diet. I just don’t see how there is enough data in this article to make any kind of useful conclusions.

Eating plant-based food is simply another way for those against growing cattle to brainwash the public. It’s fine for some, but not for everyone. The jury is still out on whether or not plant-based food is more healthy than animal-based protein.


Recent research on mammal meat, acetylcholine and TMAO in connection with circulation and atherosclerosis, argues strongly, for me, that a thoughtful approach to even partial vegetarianism is loaded with promise for positive health. The research is of further interest to me in building an alternative view of, and insights into, cholesterol disease-concepts.

It’s hard to tell whether it’s the animal protein or the highly processed foods that accounts for this. What would Terry and Joe recommend to older people hoping to avoid sarcopenia on a plant-based diet?

For our own health, we follow a diet with lots of plant foods. We do eat eggs, dairy products and fish along with veggies, fruits and beans. We like to eat food in season, especially from local farmers, and avoid fast food. Can’t say we entirely avoid processed foods–we drink coffee and tea and eat chocolate, all fairly processed!

There are other journal articles saying similar things. Here is a very interesting one from The Lancet:
From the “Findings”: “In the ARIC cohort, after multivariable adjustment, there was a U-shaped association between the percentage of energy consumed from carbohydrate (mean 48·9%, SD 9·4) and mortality: a percentage of 50–55% energy from carbohydrate was associated with the lowest risk of mortality. In the meta- analysis of all cohorts (432 179 participants), both low carbohydrate consumption (70%) conferred greater mortality risk than did moderate intake, which was consistent with a U-shaped association (pooled hazard ratio 1·20, 95% CI 1·09–1·32 for low carbohydrate consumption; 1·23, 1·11–1·36 for high carbohydrate consumption). However, results varied by the source of macronutrients: mortality increased when carbohydrates were exchanged for animal-derived fat or protein (1·18, 1·08–1·29) and mortality decreased when the substitutions were plant-based (0·82, 0·78–0·87).”

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