As a plant-based doctor, I frequently encounter inquiries about the health benefits of switching to a plant-based diet. Two hot topics that have caught the attention of many are the association between meat intake and life expectancy and whether animal-free meat alternatives are indeed more heart-healthy than meat. Today, let’s dive deep into the studies evaluating these conflicting ideals and interpret what it means for human health.
Is Eating Meat the Key to Longevity?
There’s been buzz on the Internet recently claiming that meat intake is associated with greater life expectancy. This has challenged the well-known beliefs about health and the Blue Zones, which have been a topic of discussion in nutrition circles since the release of the hit Netflix series.
What are the Blue Zones?
For those who don’t know, the term “Blue Zones” refers to five regions of the world where people more commonly live to be 100 years old compared to most other areas. Not only do these people live longer, but they age healthfully, simply enjoying a high quality of life.
But what does the topic of Blue Zones have to do with this discussion of meat? Well, some suggest the reason these groups of people enjoy long, healthy lives is due to their predominantly plant-based diet. Typically, people living in the Blue Zones have diets that are rich in vegetables, fruits, legumes, grains, and sometimes dairy, with limited or no meat, and minimal unhealthy ultra-processed foods. While it may be true that those living in the Blue Zones tend to eat plant-based diets, the available data doesn’t offer definitive evidence about which factors are most responsible for their longevity. They also tend to have excellent social support, are physically active, and limit other unhealthy lifestyle practices such as smoking. Thus, while their diets likely play a role in their longevity, those claiming that a plant-based diet alone is the key may be jumping the gun.
Study of Meat Consumption and Longevity
On the other side of the diet-longevity debate, some animal-based diet proponents point to a study that may suggest that meat is actually the key. The study in question was cross-sectional, meaning it captured a snapshot in time and observed meat intake and life expectancy across 175 populations. While they reported a positive correlation between meat intake and life expectancy, the results may not be as conclusive as some people think. Why? Because they relied on meat supply data for their conclusions and did not measure the actual meat intake of their participants, which is clearly an issue with the methodology and can misrepresent how much people are actually consuming as much of the food may be wasted; however, the issues go deeper.
Among the populations studied, numerous variables could influence the results, like differences in access to healthcare, exercise routines, and more. Although attempts were made to adjust for factors like obesity rates, education, and GDP (gross domestic product), this might not provide an accurate reflection of individual circumstances. Particularly regarding income, which is a significant predictor of life expectancy. Interestingly, the study didn’t find obesity as a noteworthy predictor of life expectancy, which is also a cause for concern given that studies with stronger research methodology consistently suggest that obesity can lower life expectancy.
An interesting comparison would be analyzing cigarette consumption and life expectancy across countries. A similar observation might misleadingly suggest that smoking promotes a longer lifespan. In reality, countries with higher cigarette consumption might simply have residents who can afford better healthcare, much like with meat.
A better way to evaluate the impact of meat intake on health outcomes is to look at the intake of meat amongst individuals within a given population, follow them for several years, and identify if those who consume more meat end up having a higher risk of developing a given medical condition or dying compared to those consuming less meat. Of course, it’s also important that the studies adjust for confounding variables, such as educational attainment, and studies that do so suggest that unprocessed red meat intake is associated with a higher risk of mortality.
The Mycomeat Trial: A Game Changer For Meat Alternatives?
Shifting our focus from traditional meats, there’s growing evidence to suggest that animal-free meat alternatives are a more heart-healthy option. While I have discussed meat alternatives in the past, mainly in my interpretation of the SWAP-MEAT trial, there’s a new study that deserves our attention: the Mycomeat trial!
The Study of Mycomeat and Heart-Health
This study compared red and processed meat to meat alternatives made with mycoprotein, a fungus-derived protein. In a sample size consisting of 20 healthy adults, participants were randomized to consume either 240g of meat or 240g of Quorn products (mycoprotein-based meat alternatives) for 14 days. After a 4-week break, they then switched their diets to follow the opposite intervention for another 14 days. While participants were asked to maintain their regular diet, they avoided protein, fibre, and probiotic supplements as well as alcohol for the duration of the study.
The only notable difference between the two diets was fibre. Since mycoprotein products contain a higher fibre content, participants’ fibre intake notably increased during the mycoprotein phase. However, the participant’s intake of sodium, calorie content, and other macronutrients remained relatively consistent between the mycoprotein and meat phases. With all that said, let’s dive into the results.
Impressively, mycoprotein consumption resulted in a 6.74% reduction in total cholesterol and a 12.3% reduction in LDL-C, resulting in significantly lower levels than meat consumption. Furthermore, there was a slight reduction in waist circumference compared to meat, with no significant differences in blood pressure, triglycerides, or blood glucose.
Overall, these findings reaffirm results from previous trials, one conducted in 1990 and another in 1992, that investigated mycoprotein-based products. All of which suggested that mycoprotein-based products could improve cardiovascular disease risk factors, including when used as a meat substitute.
The Plant-Based Pathway for Heart-Health and Longevity
Given the concerns surrounding traditional meat and the health benefits of plant-based protein alternatives, those seeking a heart-healthy diet might consider incorporating more protein-rich plant-based foods and ingredients. Here are some options:
- Lentils, chickpeas, and beans
- Tofu, tempeh, textured vegetable protein, and edamame
- Nutritional yeast
- Hemp seeds
- Powdered peanut butter
- Plant-based meat alternatives that are low in saturated fat (click here to read an article I wrote about plant-based meat alternatives here)
Consult a Plant-Based Doctor
Whether you’re curious about the impact of meat on longevity or exploring heart-healthy alternatives, the journey to understanding the potential benefits of a plant-based diet is both fascinating and essential. If you’re considering making dietary changes or wish to find a plant-based doctor to guide you, please make an appointment today and embark on a healthier, longer life.
Dr. Matthew Nagra is a Naturopathic Doctor in Vancouver who is passionate about evidence-based nutrition and medicine. In addition to his online and public speaking work, he employs a wide range lifestyle interventions, including plant-based nutrition, as well as physical therapies in his practice to help his patients prevent or recover from chronic illnesses and physical injuries. Holding a Plant-Based Nutrition Certification from Cornell University and the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, he has penned several articles on the topic, underlining his specialized training in nutrition.