Replacing just 5 per cent of your daily calories from meat with plant-based alternatives nearly halves the risk of early death, according to new research.
A study of 37,000 people with an average age of 50 found that just small adjustments to protein sources had significant long-term benefits.
Those who switched away from meat in favour of nuts, legumes and whole grains or dairy were far less likely to develop serious heart-related diseases in late middle age.
Scientists at Harvard University in the United States analysed 20 years’ worth of data, and found that even replacing just 2 per cent of daily calories from processed meat protein with an equivalent number of calories from plant-based protein was associated with a 32 per cent lower risk of death.
Even better, substituting one serving per day of red or processed red meat for nuts, legumes, whole grains or dairy, was linked to to a 47 per cent lower specific risk of developing coronary heart disease.
However, Dr Zhilei Shan, who led the research, warned: “It isn’t enough just to avoid red meat – it’s also about what you choose to eat in place of red meat.
“Healthy plant proteins like nuts, legumes and whole grains contain more than just protein. They include other beneficial nutrients such as healthy fats, antioxidant vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals – compounds derived from plants – which have been associated with lower risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.”
The average amount of meat eaten per person in the UK on a daily basis is almost double the world average at 226g.
The new research comes after years of research into the potential health risks associated with red meat consumption. Last year, a study by Oxford University found that eating red meat just once a day increases the risk of bowel cancer by a fifth.
Meanwhile, this week a separate study by Harvard University concluded that eating an egg a day was safe because the high cholesterol levels in patients that scientists had previously attributed to eggs were more likely to be the result of red-meat consumption.
The researchers behind the red-meat study said its strengths included the length of the follow-up period and the substantial number of coronary heart disease cases involved.
Its limitations included the observational nature of the study and the study population of mostly white male health professionals – making it unclear if the findings would apply to a more diverse population. The research also noted people’s food consumption and health outcomes rather than actively testing different nutritional options.
NHS advice states that red meats such as beef, lamb and pork are a good source of protein, vitamins and minerals, but that eating too much can increase the risk of bowel cancer. It’s recommended that people consume just 70g per day.
Presenting the research to the American Heart Association’s Epidemiology and Prevention Conference, Dr Laila Al-Shaar said: “Our findings suggest that even partial replacement of red meat with healthy, plant-based sources of protein could substantially reduce rates of coronary heart disease.”