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Eat Plant Protein to Live Longer

August 11, 2016 by Joel Fuhrman, MD

A newly published article in JAMA Internal Medicine has investigated the relationship between (animal vs. plant) protein sources and mortality risk from almost 30 years of follow-up from the Nurses’ Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-up Study, which together included over 170,000 participants.

Interesting findings came out of one particular question the researchers asked: What would happen if the participants replaced some of their animal protein with plant protein?

They analyzed the data to estimate how participants’ risk of death from all causes over the follow-up period would change if some of the animal protein sources (equivalent to 3 percent of total daily calories) were replaced with plant protein sources:

  • Replace processed red meat: 34 percent decrease in risk
  • Replace unprocessed red meat: 12 percent decrease in risk
  • Replace poultry: 6 percent decrease in risk
  • Replace fish: 6 percent decrease in risk
  • Replace eggs: 19 percent decrease in risk
  • Replace dairy: 8 percent decrease in risk1

What’s wrong with animal protein sources?

  • Animal protein elevates IGF-1, which is linked to increased cancer risk.2-4
  • Carnitine and choline from meat and eggs are converted by gut bacteria to TMAO — a pro-inflammatory compound that promotes cardiovascular disease.5, 6
  • Heme iron in excess is an oxidant that contributes to cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease.7 Arachidonic acid promotes inflammation, which may increase cancer risk.8
  • Carcinogenic compounds: Heterocyclic amines, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and N-nitroso compounds (mostly processed meats).9
  • Higher animal protein intake promotes weight gain.10, 11 In fact, a recent study compared meat  availability, sugar availability, and obesity rates in different countries, and  found that sugar and meat had similar correlations to obesity rates. This result suggests that availability of meat contributes to obesity just as much as availability of sugar.12

This is the latest of many studies to link greater meat consumption to a greater risk of death.13-15 In contrast, plant protein sources are associated with better health: for example, seeds and nuts reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and are linked to longevity, and micronutrient and fiber-rich beans are linked to improved blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, body weight, insulin sensitivity and enhanced lifespan.16-20

  1. Song M, Fung TT, Hu FB, et al: Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake With All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality. JAMA Intern Med 2016.
  2. Levine ME, Suarez JA, Brandhorst S, et al: Low Protein Intake Is Associated with a Major Reduction in IGF-1, Cancer, and Overall Mortality in the 65 and Younger but Not Older Population. Cell Metab 2014;19:407-417.
  3. Key TJ, Appleby PN, Reeves GK, et al: Insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1), IGF binding protein 3 (IGFBP3), and breast cancer risk: pooled individual data analysis of 17 prospective studies. The lancet oncology 2010;11:530-542.
  4. Rowlands MA, Gunnell D, Harris R, et al: Circulating insulin-like growth factor peptides and prostate cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Cancer 2009;124:2416-2429.
  5. Koeth RA, Wang Z, Levison BS, et al: Intestinal microbiota metabolism of l-carnitine, a nutrient in red meat, promotes atherosclerosis. Nat Med 2013.
  6. Tang WH, Wang Z, Levison BS, et al: Intestinal microbial metabolism of phosphatidylcholine and cardiovascular risk. N Engl J Med 2013;368:1575-1584.
  7. Brewer GJ: Iron and copper toxicity in diseases of aging, particularly atherosclerosis and Alzheimer's disease. Exp Biol Med 2007;232:323-335.
  8. de Lorgeril M, Salen P: New insights into the health effects of dietary saturated and omega-6 and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids. BMC Med 2012;10:50.
  9. National Cancer Institute. Chemicals in Meat Cooked at High Temperatures and Cancer Risk. Accessed July 1, 2014.
  10. Bujnowski D, Xun P, Daviglus ML, et al: Longitudinal Association between Animal and Vegetable Protein Intake and Obesity among Men in the United States: The Chicago Western Electric Study. J Am Diet Assoc 2011;111:1150-1155 e1151.
  11. Rosell M, Appleby P, Spencer E, et al: Weight gain over 5 years in 21,966 meat-eating, fish-eating, vegetarian, and vegan men and women in EPIC-Oxford. Int J Obes (Lond) 2006;30:1389-1396.
  12. You W, Henneberg M: Meat in Modern Diet, Just as Bad as Sugar, Correlates with Worldwide Obesity: An Ecological Analysis. Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences 2016;6.
  13. Wang X, Lin X, Ouyang YY, et al: Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Public Health Nutr 2016;19:893-905.
  14. Pan A, Sun Q, Bernstein AM, et al: Red Meat Consumption and Mortality: Results From 2 Prospective Cohort Studies. Arch Intern Med 2012.
  15. Sinha R, Cross AJ, Graubard BI, et al: Meat intake and mortality: a prospective study of over half a million people. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:562-571.
  16. Grosso G, Yang J, Marventano S, et al: Nut consumption on all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer mortality risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of epidemiologic studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2015;101:783-793.
  17. Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Augustin LS, et al: Effect of legumes as part of a low glycemic index diet on glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes mellitus: a randomized controlled trial. Arch Intern Med 2012;172:1653-1660.
  18. Bazzano LA, Thompson AM, Tees MT, et al: Non-soy legume consumption lowers cholesterol levels: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Nutrition, metabolism, and cardiovascular diseases : NMCD 2011;21:94-103.
  19. Papanikolaou Y, Fulgoni VL, 3rd: Bean consumption is associated with greater nutrient intake, reduced systolic blood pressure, lower body weight, and a smaller waist circumference in adults: results from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 1999-2002. J Am Coll Nutr 2008;27:569-576.
  20. Darmadi-Blackberry I, Wahlqvist ML, Kouris-Blazos A, et al: Legumes: the most important dietary predictor of survival in older people of different ethnicities. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2004;13:217-220.

Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is a board-certified family physician, six-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally recognized expert on nutrition and natural healing, who specializes in preventing and reversing disease through nutritional methods. Dr. Fuhrman coined the term “Nutritarian” to describe his longevity-promoting, nutrient dense, plant-rich eating style.
For over 25 years, Dr. Fuhrman has shown that it is possible to achieve sustainable weight loss and reverse heart disease, diabetes and many other illnesses using smart nutrition. In his medical practice, and through his books and PBS television specials, he continues to bring this life-saving message to hundreds of thousands of people around the world.


Comments (0):



08/15/2016 07:59 PM

I think IGF1 has some useful benefits in our physiology and I rarely hear about them. If I took this article to heart, I would never touch animal protein, and that might not be so good for my bones. I worry about that because I am old.

Dr. Ferreri replies:

08/16/2016 12:16 PM

IGF-1 does have important roles in the body. Both excessively low and excessively high levels are problematic. Dr. Fuhrman discusses this in detail here:
This reply was last edited on 08/16/2016 12:17 PM

macduff replies:

08/16/2016 12:27 PM

I recently found a calcium deficiency, and was prescribed 1200mg of calcium citrate daily for my age , 600mg pill, 600 via food. I also learned that those taking Vit-D supplements and most everyone should, have a problem if sufficient Vit-K2 is not present in our diet when consuming Calcium Citrate & Vit-D. Articles suggest 150mcg K2 daily. Hard to come by: Gouda cheese, leafy greens are good but you'd need to quite a bit, best is fermented soy, don't much like soy, esp. fermented soy.
This reply was last edited on 08/16/2016 12:27 PM

Dr. Ferreri

08/16/2016 02:44 PM

Leafy greens contain K1. K2 is harder to find in the diet, only in some rare fermented foods and cheeses, so Dr. Fuhrman recommends supplementing. K2, and it is included in our multivitamins: There is no recommended intake set specifically for K2, but the Daily Value for (total) vitamin K is 80 mcg. More info on K1 and K2:
This comment was last edited on 08/19/2016 10:22 AM

Dr. Ferreri replies:

08/19/2016 10:23 AM

A Nutritarian diet with greens, beans and seeds is the most effective way to stabilize bone mass and encourage calcium absorption. It is rich in calcium, magnesium and K1, all supporting bone health. Dr. Fuhrman’s OsteoSun is designed for women like you who require extra K2, a bit more food-derived calcium and Vitamin D, to maximize absorption and benefits without the risks of taking concentrated dosages of Calcium citrate, which can have other risks, such as calcifications of soft tissue.
This reply was last edited on 08/19/2016 10:27 AM


08/17/2016 03:20 PM

Dr. Ferreri, Is isolated soy protein like the one found in liquid Aminos a source of IGF-1? I don't want to mention the brand, but it's very well known. Thank you!

Dr. Ferreri replies:

08/18/2016 10:43 AM

The protein content of the amount of Bragg's Liquid Aminos one would use in a recipe is very small (1 tsp. has 0.5 g protein). The concern for IGF-1 elevation due to isolated soy protein is more for things like protein powders and soy burgers, etc. More info:


10/30/2016 08:08 PM

Dr. Steven Gundry has an online video where he says to stay away from vegetables that have high amounts of lectin, such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and beans. Is lectin harmful? Thank you.

vaporz replies:

07/18/2018 03:03 PM

Gundry is a fraud who uses pseudoscience sophistry to line his own pockets.  Here are two excellent links from two ethical and respected physicians that will give you the truth about lectins:


04/26/2017 09:10 AM

I am super confused.  Been a long time vegetarian and vegan of 2+ years.  Have followed Dr. Fuhrman for over two  years and just now I'm learning about the harmful effects of lectin ... in most of the foods Dr. Fuhrman promotes.  Wondering why he hasn't addressed this concern.  I only found two hits on the site.  I am very confused about what to eat.  I've read that pressure cooking and soaking beans will reduce lectin which is how I prepare them, but I've been living on lentils and veggies, beans, all of which (except for some of the veggies) are high in lectin.  I'm strongly considering avoiding some of the foods Dr. Fuhrman is recommending and incorporating some turkey breast or chicken breast to see whether this helps resolve some of my GI tract issues and also resolves some of the fatigue I'm feeling, which is so abundant.  I love what Michael Pollan said in his book, "The Omnivore Dilemna," ... eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.  I think I'm going to approach nutrition with this perspective in mind. I am disappointed that the concern around plant lectins isn't discussed by Dr. Fuhrman, whom I've come to rely on for my  nutritional advice.  All the concern I've had in general, for many years really, around optimal nutrition has taken some of the joy out of eating for me.  Wish it weren't so.


04/28/2017 11:42 AM

Update:  Went modified paleo this week due to the gi issues I've had with plant lectins (which I discovered on other sites).  I'm pleasantly surprised at how much better I feel.  Not going to go crazy on the meat, but some organic turkey breast and no grains and few legumes/pulses, and I think I'll much better.  

Dr. Ferreri

05/09/2017 10:46 AM

Re: Lectins

Lectins are proteins that bind carbohydrate. There are many different lectins. Lectins are not only present in plant foods, they are ubiquitous in nature, in plants, animals, and microorganisms.

Certain lectins in beans, red kidney beans in particular, if the beans are raw or undercooked can cause gastrointestinal problems. However, fully cooked beans do not contain those lectins, so the only necessary precaution is to not eat undercooked beans.

There are many different lectins with different actions. Some lectins in foods can bind to starches in the food during digestion, slowing the breakdown of the starch (and reducing glycemic effects of the food). Other lectins on pathogenic bacteria allow them to bind to intestinal epithelial cells, enhancing their ability to cause an infection. Many lectins in animal cells facilitate necessary binding and interaction with other cells. A lectin in common mushrooms has been found to inhibit proliferation of cancer cells.

People who have allergies to certain foods (or other substances) may have an allergic reaction specifically to a lectin in that food. Also, bacterial infections or autoimmune illnesses may make intestinal cells sensitive to certain food lectins. So there may be individuals who should avoid certain foods because of a sensitivity to a lectin in that food. However, this does not mean that lectins overall are harmful.

Beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds are high-nutrient, fiber-rich foods that are consistently associated with beneficial health outcomes, and there is no evidence that attempting to avoid lectins by limiting certain plant foods provides any health benefit.  


05/09/2017 03:33 PM

Thanks, I was hopeful someone might respond.  I might be one of those people with allergies in a lot of the foods which I had been eating for over two years as a vegan.  I have to say on my Paelo diet, which is basically lots of green veggies (and other veggies, too) , some fruit, some nuts, some seeds, some meat (poultry), I am feeling so much better.  I am working to ensure I have sufficient fiber.  My gi distress is gone. I am calmer, the anxiety which I felt for a lot of years is much reduced, and perhaps the most interesting thing of all for me is that my gout bump is completely gone.  Right toe joint.  I mean gone.  For the first time in many years, I don't even feel a twinge.  I think it was the grains which were the culprits.  I will slowly introduce some legumes slowly back into my diet over time.  I don't eat eggs or dairy, even before I didn't.

My beef (guess I can say that now =) with this site is that there was no mention at all about lectins.  Yes, I've learned a lot about them since I first learned what the word meant becasue I've read everything I can get my  hands on about them, and with the internet, that's a lot of resourceful info.  I think Dr. Furhrman should mention them because my response was, 'wow ... why didn't Dr. Fuhrman even talk about this subject?  Lectins are predominently in all the foods he is telling me to eat .. and I have some associated gi distress and joint pain, h'mmmmn, from what I've read, could be a connection.'  I felt a bit betrayed.  I have enough confidence in the diet plan I've chosen for now and appreciate Dr. Fuhrman's insights in general, but I am disappointed that lectins weren't part of the discussion at all.