Last week, the Journal of American Heart Association (JAHA) published a new in-depth study on protein sources. A team of 11 researchers headed by the University of Iowa’s School of Public Health examined the relationship between mortality and protein consumption.
More specifically, they looked at plant protein vs animal protein and which had the higher rates of all-cause and specific-cause mortality.
They suggest that dietary recommendations focused on total protein intake regardless of the source may be “simplistic and insufficient.”
The reality is that global dietary guidelines should begin distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy protein options. Which of our two proteins deserves their recommendation?
According to the JAHA study, the winner is clear: plant protein!
The researchers gathered data on 102,521 postmenopausal women ages 50 to 79 who had joined the Women’s Health Initiative in the mid-1990s. Recruited from 40 clinics around the U.S., they provided a diverse population with multiethnic diets.
Yet, the researchers had no trouble distinguishing between the women’s plant protein vs animal protein consumption.
The animal proteins included:
- Unprocessed red meat (pork, beef, lamb, veal, and game)
- Processed red meat (franks, luncheon meats, sausages)
- Poultry (chicken and turkey)
- Fish (Seafood and shellfish)
- Dairy products (Milk, Yogurt, and cheese)
The plant-based protein they tracked consisted of:
- Nuts and seeds
- Legumes (soy products, beans, and peas)
Plant Protein vs Animal Protein: the Long-Term Mortality Rate
Over the prospective cohort study’s up to 18 years of follow-up, nearly 25 percent (25,976) of the women died. Their leading causes of death?
- Cancer: 29 percent (7,516)
- Cardiovascular disease (CVD): 27 percent (6,993)
- Dementia:: 11 percent (2,734)
In isolating plant protein vs animal protein as the cause of death, the researchers adjusted for each woman’s:
- Socioeconomic status
- Dietary and lifestyle factors
- Baseline and family history of disease
What did the adjustments reveal?
Substituting plant protein for animal protein led to a lower risk of death from all causes.
More specifically, their findings linked:
- Processed red meat and eggs with higher death rates from all causes.
- Unprocessed red meat, eggs, and dairy products with higher CVD death rates.
- Egg consumption with higher cancer death rates.
- Processed red meat with higher dementia death rates.
The researchers also referenced previous studies which found similar correlations. However, they suggested their effort was likely the first to associate red meat intake and dementia mortality.
Plant Protein vs Animal Protein: Amino Acids
We need protein for much more than muscle building. Protein consists of strings of amino acids, 12 of which our bodies can produce.
But they also need nine others – and must get them from food.
They’re the essential amino acids:
Our small intestines convert dietary protein into these individual amino acids that our bodies can absorb and reassemble into a usable form. Think of it like playing Scrabble, using 26 individual letters to make words on the Scrabble board.
We can form over 10,000 words in the English language, we also use form over 10,000 different proteins. Researchers are still unclear on exactly how many proteins species we need for human function, but estimates range from 10,000 to several billion. All of them made from just 21 amino acids.
You might lose a Scrabble letter once in a while, making words harder to form. But as long as you’re eating enough animal or plant protein, your body won’t have any problem obtaining all the essential amino acids it needs!
In the words of Dr. Jim Loomis (team internist for two professional sports teams), eating a whole-food, plant-based diet makes it “…impossible to become deficient in an individual amino acid.”
The Protein Deficiency Myth
Protein deficiency is extremely rare and mainly seen in starving children from developing countries. Protein-deficient children suffer from:
- stunted growth
- poor musculature
- thin and fragile hair
and skin lesions.
In the U.S., according to the National Institutes of Health, “Deficiency of this severity is very rare in the United States, except as a consequence of pathologic conditions and poor medical management of the acutely ill.”
My plant-based children often get the “Where do you get your protein?” question from their peers.
It’s just another sign of the worldwide delusion that vegans are protein-deprived. If we’re eating enough calories, we’re eating enough protein!
The idea that vegans or vegetarians don’t get enough protein or individual amino acids is a myth. So’s the one that animal protein is superior to plant protein.
These common misconceptions aren’t just a little off. According to the JAHA study, they’re the opposite of true:
“In this large prospective cohort study, we found that higher plant protein intake and substitution of animal protein with plant protein were associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality, CVD mortality, and dementia mortality.”
When it comes to the argument about plant protein vs animal protein and longevity the research is clear, plant protein is superior!