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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.
Is It Better to Get Protein from Plants or Animals?
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. .
  • 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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