Vegetable proteins: a very good option for our health and that of the planet

Simply eating plant-based protein sources more often: nuts, legumes, whole grains, or fish instead of red meat is associated with a significantly lower risk of dying prematurely over the next ten years.

A very large number of studies have reported an association between high consumption of red meats and processed meats and an increased risk of several chronic diseases (cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer in particular) and premature mortality. Several factors have been proposed to explain the harmful effects of these meats on health, including their high saturated fat content, the high heme iron content, the formation of carcinogenic compounds (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) during cooking or the presence preservatives such as nitrites and nitrates.

The rise in the standard of living in several regions of the world, combined with intensive animal husbandry which has made it possible to reduce production costs, means that more and more people regularly consume red meat (and meat in general ) worldwide.

Between 1961 and 2011, this upward trend was particularly impressive for several Asian countries such as Japan (+131%), Vietnam (+322%), South Korea (+821%) and especially China (+ 1442%). Previously mainly observed in the West, health problems linked to excessive consumption of red meats have become a global phenomenon.

Plant proteins and fish: lower risk of premature death

We often tend to believe that it is absolutely necessary to eat red meats to obtain an adequate protein intake. This is false, because several other foods such as poultry, fish and many plants are also excellent sources of protein, without causing the health problems associated with red meats.

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This is well evidenced by the results of a Harvard University study of 81,469 people over an 8-year period. The researchers first observed that people who had increased their consumption of red meat during this period (1/2 more serving per day) had an increased risk (10%) of premature death, with this effect being even more pronounced. following an increase in the intake of charcuterie (about 20%). The most innovative data of the article, however, remains the significant reductions in the risk of premature mortality when the participants replaced red meat with other sources of protein. This risk decreases sharply following substitution of one serving per day of red meats for one serving of nuts (19%), followed by fish (17%), whole grains (12%), poultry ( 10%), vegetables (10%), dairy products and eggs (8%), and legumes (6%). These effects are even greater when deli meats are replaced by other types of protein-rich foods, especially nuts (26%) and fish (25%). Overall, these results confirm that the simple replacement of red meats and deli meats with alternative sources of protein is beneficial for health.

Industrial livestock farming responsible for 25% of greenhouse gases

There has recently been a lot of publicity around a study that claimed that although eating red meats increases the risk of chronic disease, the increase is not large enough to justify a decrease in consumption. This claim startled the majority of health experts, not only because the analysis of this study was biased in its use of statistical methods, but also because it took absolutely no account of the enormous impact environment associated with livestock farming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that 25% of greenhouse gases are the result of livestock farming and the resulting deforestation. It seems increasingly clear that a reduction in our meat consumption is essential to preserve both the health of humans and that of the planet.

A simple gesture for your health and the planet

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The environmental consequences of intensive farming are already in themselves a sufficient reason to reduce the consumption of these meats. We cannot dissociate our health from that of the environment in which we live: the deterioration of our environment, whether in terms of air and soil pollution or global warming, is likely to be the main health threat. of the next century, and any change that can mitigate the production of greenhouse gases must therefore be considered a priority.

Replacing red meat with less polluting solutions, especially those of plant origin, is certainly one of those actions that is within everyone’s reach.


Zheng Y et al: Association of changes in red meat consumption with total and cause specific mortality among US women and men: two prospective cohort studies. BMJ 2019; 365: l2110.

Zeraatkar D et al: Red and processed meat consumption and risk for all-cause mortality and cardiometabolic outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis

of cohort studies. Ann. Intern. Med. 2019; 171: 703-710.

Willett W et al: Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. Lancet 2019; 393: 447-492.

* Presse Santé strives to transmit medical knowledge in a language accessible to all. In NO CASE can the information given replace medical advice. []

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