The Many Health Benefits of Eating Less Meat

A plant-based diet can improve heart health and add years to your life.

A dietician talks to a patient about reducing red meat consumption and choosing a plant-based diet for heart health.

Updated on January 31, 2023.

Want to improve your health? Try eating more plants. Studies suggest adopting a plant-based diet—one that limits or even excludes animal products—has numerous health benefits. Not only can it reduce the risk of conditions like diabetes and heart disease, it may even help you live longer.

Fear not—you don’t have to swear off meat entirely. In fact, according to the essential principles of Blue Zones—regions of the world that have the highest populations of people living beyond 100 years of age—centenarians eat meat, primarily pork, about five times per month. 

Keep in mind, however, that real health perks come when a diet is based mostly on fruits, vegetables, beans and legumes, nuts, seeds, and 100 percent whole grains.

Health perks of cutting back on meat

When you follow a plant-based diet like those enjoyed by people living in Blue Zones, you may reap a number of health benefits.

Greater longevity: One 2019 study published in BMJ analyzed data collected from more than 81,000 people over a 16-year period, and found that increasing red or processed meat intake over time was linked to a raised risk of death. Similarly, a 2020 meta-analysis in JAMA Internal Medicine found that adults with a higher intake of processed or red meat had greater chances of dying from any cause.

You may be able to lower this risk by reducing your consumption of red meat and swapping it for plant-based proteins, such as nuts, beans, lentils, and tofu. In a study of more than 12,000 middle-aged adults over 29 years, researchers discovered that an overall plant-based diet was associated with an 11 percent lower risk of dying—for any reason. The results were published in the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2019.
Reduced risk of heart disease: The health of your heart is determined partly by factors outside of your control, such as genetics and age. But you have the power to influence some major risk factors, such as your cholesterol and blood pressure. Eating too much red meat may raise both of them, while focusing on plant-based foods can help you manage or lower your levels.

It has a lot to do with red meat’s saturated fat content. A 3.5-ounce serving of 85 percent-lean ground beef has about 7 grams of saturated fat, or roughly a third of the daily recommended limit. A 1/2 cup of pinto beans, however, contains only 1 gram of total fat. Pinto beans also contain fewer calories and more fiber, both of which can contribute to a healthy weight. 

In that 2019 Journal of the American Heart Association study, a plant-based diet was linked to a 19 percent lower risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.
Better weight management: Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer, among other health conditions. Lowering your body mass index (BMI) can reduce the risk of many of these diseases.

Several studies suggest a link between obesity and the consumption of meat. But a plant-based diet may promote weight loss and reduce a person’s risk of obesity. One study published in the journal Nutrients in 2020 found that people who ate vegetarian-style diets consumed fewer calories and less saturated fat than those who ate meat and animal products. A 2017 study in the Journal of Geriatric Cardiology also suggested that plant-based diets were associated with both lower BMIs and the potential for weight loss. 

Lower diabetes risk: Due to its nutrient content and its effect on curbing weight gain, eating a plant-based diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes. In fact, a 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that focusing on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and nuts was linked to a lower risk even after adjusting for BMI.

Optimize plant-based eating 

Remember: Not all meatless meals are healthy, and switching to a plant-based diet can take preparation and adaptation. For starters, it’s key to remember the recommended daily values of certain foods—it’s a wise idea to consume 2 cups of fruit, 2 1/2 cups of vegetables, and 3 1/2 ounces of protein each day.

If you’re vegan and avoid dairy, you can get your protein, calcium, and other vital nutrients in other ways. Here are a few swaps to get you started: 

  • Protein: Focus on beans, lentils, tofu, and nuts.
  • Calcium: Swap a glass of whole milk for a serving or two of kale. Although milk contains more calcium per serving, kale is still an excellent source. 
  • Iron: Plant-based iron, found in lentils and leafy greens, isn’t absorbed easily. Eat fruits high in vitamin C—like citrus fruits and strawberries—to help your body absorb iron more efficiently.
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Kim H, Caulfield LE, et al. Plant‐Based Diets Are Associated With a Lower Risk of Incident Cardiovascular Disease, Cardiovascular Disease Mortality, and All‐Cause Mortality in a General Population of Middle‐Aged Adults. Journal of the American Heart Association. 2019;8:e012865.
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