Will Plant Proteins Help You Live Longer?

Is A Vegan Diet Healthiest?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

Fountain Of YouthUnless you are Rip Van Winkle and have been asleep for the past 40 years, you have probably heard that whole food, primarily plant-based diets are good for you.

  • They help you control your weight.
  • They reduce inflammation.
  • They reduce your risk of diabetes and heart disease.
  • They even reduce your risk of some cancers.

But do they help you live longer? If we take that question literally, the answer appears to be no. There is no “Fountain Of Youth”. There are no diets that extend our lives significantly.

However, what if you could reduce your risk of premature death? It would be tragic to have your life cut short by a heart attack or some other major disease. What if you could prevent that?

And what if you could live healthier longer? It would be equally tragic to spend your golden years debilitated by chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, or dementia. What if you could delay these diseases and live healthier longer?

The study I discuss this week (Y Sun, Journal of the American Heart Association, 10:e015553, 2021) looks at the effect of different dietary protein sources on premature death.

This study, like many others, suggests that primarily plant-based diets are healthier than meat-based diets. But what does this mean for you? Should you go completely meatless? Is a vegan diet healthier than other plant-based diets? I discuss what we know and what we do not know about the vegan diet compared to other plant-based diets.

How Was This Study Done?

Clinical StudyThe data for this study were drawn from the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI). The Women’s Health Initiative was designed to help identify strategies for preventing heart disease and other diseases in postmenopausal women. It enrolled 161,000 postmenopausal women from 40 sites across the US between 1993 and 1998 and followed them through 2017.

This study excluded women who had heart disease or cancer when they entered the WHI study and women who had incomplete data on either their diet or their use of postmenopausal hormone therapy. They were left with 102,521 women, age 50-79 at time of entry, who were followed for 18 years.

Each woman filed out an extensive dietary survey at the beginning of the study. There were 25,976 deaths during the study. The cause of death was determined by reviewing death certificates, medical records, autopsy reports or by linkage to the National Death Index.

The investigators asked whether women who ate more plant proteins were healthier than those who ate primarily meat protein. To answer this question, they correlated protein sources in the diet with all-cause mortality and deaths from various diseases.

The greatest difficulty with this type of study is that people who eat more plant protein tend to have a healthier diet and a healthier lifestyle. That makes it hard to separate out the benefits of eating plant proteins from benefits associated with other aspects of their diet and lifestyle. So, the authors corrected their data for every factor known to influence the risk of heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and premature death.

Specifically, the data were statistically corrected for age, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, hormone use, lifestyle (smoking status, physical activity, and alcohol intake), baseline health status (diabetes and/or high blood cholesterol), family history of heart attack/stroke, dietary factors (calorie intake, dietary fiber intake, whole grain consumption, fruit and vegetable consumption, sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, glycemic load (effect of foods in the diet on blood sugar), and percentage of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and trans fats), and weight (BMI).

In short, the authors corrected for every other factor that could influence disease risk and/or premature death. By doing so, they were able to focus on the effect of protein sources on disease risk and/or premature death.

Will Plant Proteins Help You Live Longer?

Plant ProteinsThe investigators divided the study participants into quintiles with respect the kind and amount of protein they consumed.

  • For animal protein, the intake ranged from 4 ounces/day in the lowest quintile to 9 ounces a day in the highest quintile (For comparison, 3 ounces is roughly equivalent to the size of a deck of cards).
  • For plant protein, the intake ranged from 2 ounces/day in the lowest quintile to 3.5 ounces/day in the highest quintile.
  • When you combine plant and animal protein in these women’s diet, plant protein ranged from 18% of total protein intake in the lowest quintile to 48% of total protein intake in the highest quintile.

When women who had the highest intake for plant protein were compared with women who had the lowest intake of plant protein, the women with the highest plant protein intake had:

  • 12% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 21% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 9% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of plant protein in the diet and premature death. Specifically, every 3 ounces of animal protein that was replaced with 3 ounces of plant protein resulted in:

  • 22% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 19% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 14% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

The Effect Of Individual Animal Proteins On Mortality

Fatty SteakThe authors also looked at the effect of various animal proteins on premature death. For example:

Red Meat: Women with the highest consumption of red meat had:

  • 14% higher risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 20% higher risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 10% higher risk of premature death from all causes.

Eggs: Women with the highest consumption of eggs had:

  • 24% higher risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 14% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 14% higher risk of premature death from all causes.

Dairy: Women with the highest consumption of dairy had:

  • 11% higher risk of premature death from heart disease.

The authors concluded, “In this large prospective cohort study, we found that higher plant protein intake and substitution of animal protein with plant protein were associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and dementia mortality…Our findings support the need for consideration of protein sources, in addition to the amount of protein intake, in future dietary guidelines.”

Is A Vegan Diet Healthiest?

Vegetarian DietYears ago, as my brother-in-law was coming out of anesthesia at the end of quadruple bypass surgery, the first question he asked was, “Does this mean I need to eat tofu?” Obviously, nothing terrified him more than the thought of eating tofu the rest of his life. In the same vein, some of you are probably asking, “Does this mean I need to go vegan?”

The good news is that none of the women in this study were consuming a vegan diet. They were consuming a typical American diet with varying amounts of plant and animal protein. The group with the highest plant protein consumption were still getting 52% of their protein from animal sources.

This study shows that even people consuming a typical American diet can become healthier by simply swapping out some of the animal protein in their diet with plant protein.

However, you are probably thinking, “Plant protein is good for us, and a vegan diet is 100% plant protein. Does that mean a vegan diet is healthier than other plant-based diets?

The answer is………”Maybe”

If the linear relationship between plant protein consumption and risk of premature death could be extrapolated all the way to 100% plant protein, the answer would be obvious. Vegan diets would be healthier than other plant-based diets. But that extrapolation is an assumption. It might not be true.

For example, some recent studies suggest that completely eliminating meat, eggs, and dairy from your diet may slightly increase your risk of heart disease and stroke:

  • One recent study found that adding 1.4 ounces of fish/day to a primarily vegetarian diet decreases the risk of stroke by 20%.
  • Another study reported that adding one egg/day to a primarily vegetarian diet decreases the risk of heart disease by 12% and stroke by 10-26%.

These studies need to be confirmed, but they do suggest we need to be cautious about assuming that vegan diets are healthier than other primarily plant-based diets. This is why, when I recommend primarily plant-based diets, I include everything from vegan through semi-vegetarian, Mediterranean, and DASH.

They are all healthy diets. My advice is to choose the one that best fits your lifestyle and food preferences. And focus on whole foods, not processed foods.

The Bottom Line 

A recent study asked whether women who ate more plant proteins were healthier than those who ate primarily meat protein. To answer this question, the investigators correlated protein sources in the diet with all-cause mortality and deaths from various diseases.

When women who had the highest intake for plant protein were compared with women who had the lowest intake of plant protein, the women with the highest plant protein intake had:

  • 12% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 21% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 9% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

There was an inverse relationship between the amount of plant protein in the diet and premature death. Specifically, every 3 ounces of animal protein that was replaced with 3 ounces of plant protein resulted in:

  • 22% lower risk of premature death from heart disease.
  • 19% lower risk of premature death from dementia.
  • 14% lower risk of premature death from all causes.

[Note: A 3-ounce serving is roughly equivalent to a deck of cards.]

The authors concluded, “In this large prospective cohort study, we found that higher plant protein intake and substitution of animal protein with plant protein were associated with lower risk of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and dementia mortality…Our findings support the need for consideration of protein sources, in addition to the amount of protein intake, in future dietary guidelines.”

Years ago, as my brother-in-law was coming out of anesthesia at the end of quadruple bypass surgery, the first question he asked was, “Does this mean I need to eat tofu?” Obviously, nothing terrified him more than the thought of eating tofu the rest of his life. In the same vein, some of you are probably asking, “Does this mean I need to go vegan?”

I discuss the answer to that question in the article above.

For more details and a discussion about the vegan diet versus other primarily plant-based diets read the article above.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

Can Diet Prevent Alzheimer’s

Preserving Your Memories In Your Golden Years

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

can diet prevent alzheimer'sAlzheimer’s is a scary disease. There is so much to look forward to in our golden years. We want to enjoy the fruits of our years of hard work. We want to enjoy our grandkids and perhaps even our great-grandkids. More importantly, we want to be able to pass on our accumulated experiences and wisdom to future generations.

Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia have the potential to rob us of everything that makes life worth living. What is the use of having a healthy body, family, and fortune if we can’t even recognize the people around us?

That is why anything that might reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s is BIG news, which brings me to the recent buzz about the MIND diet.  Can diet prevent Alzheimer’s.

 

What Is The MIND Diet?

the mind dietThe MIND diet is the brainchild of Dr. Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Rush University Medical Center. She started with the Mediterranean and DASH diets, which I have described in a previous issue of “Health Tips From the Professor,” because both of those diets have been shown to reduce the risk of dementia. Then she researched the literature for studies linking specific foods and nutrients to improving cognition and/or preventing dementia.

In short, she combined the brain-healthy features of the Mediterranean and DASH diets and further modified them based on the best scientific data available. She emphasized some components of those two diets and minimized others. She also modified the number of servings of some foods, based on the best available evidence.

She acknowledged that when she eliminated or reduced foods that were parts of those two diets, it did not mean those foods might not play an important role in preserving cognitive function as we age. It simply meant we don’t currently have strong evidence to prove their beneficial effects in preserving cognition.

The MIND diet is a whole food, plant-based, diet.

 

  • It includes 10 “brain-healthy” food groups: green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, beans, whole grains, fish, poultry, olive oil, and wine (in moderation, too much alcohol kills brain cells).
  • It limits red & processed meats, butter and margarine, cheese, pastries & sweets, and fried & fast foods.
  • It neither recommends nor discourages low fat dairy foods and fruit other than berries. Dr. Morris notes that while those are healthy foods, they have no proven benefit for preventing cognitive decline.

 

Can Diet Prevent Alzheimer’s?

 

As you can tell, a lot of thought went into the design of the MIND diet, but does it work? Dr. Morris partnered with 5 of her colleagues at Rush University Medical Center to test the hypothesis (Morris et al., Alzheimer’s & Dementia 11: 1007-1014, 2015). They enrolled 923 participants, ages 59 to 98 years (average age = 81) from retirement communities and senior public housing units in the Chicago area. All participants were free of Alzheimer’s disease when the study began.

doctor's studyAt the beginning of the study each participant filled out a detailed food frequency questionnaire. Participants were given an extensive physical and neurological exam designed to diagnose the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia on an annual basis. Participants were followed for an average of 4.5 years, during which time 144 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s and another 14 developed non-Alzheimer’s dementia.

At the end of the study the food frequency data were analyzed to determine how closely participants adhered to the MIND diet, the Mediterranean diet, and the DASH diet.  Adherence to each of these diets was then correlated with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. [To be perfectly clear, none of the participants were given any dietary instruction. Nor were they advised to change their diet. This study simply looked at the diets they were already eating and determined how closely their diet matched the standards set for MIND, Mediterranean, and DASH diets.] The results were striking:

  1. Strict adherence to all 3 diets significantly decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decreased risk was:
    • 53% for the MIND diet.
    • 54% for the Mediterranean diet.
    • 39% for the DASH diet.
  2. When the investigators looked at moderate adherence to each of the diets, the MIND diet performed slightly better than the other two diets:
    • Moderate adherence to the MIND diet decreased Alzheimer’s risk by 35%.
    • Moderate adherence to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had no significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk.

What Does This Study Mean For You?

Dr. Morris concluded that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, provide substantial protection against dementia. She stated that as new studies come along, these diets can be modified to provide even better protection. She considers the MIND diet is the first step in that process.

alzheimer's riskA 53% decrease in Alzheimer’s risk is impressive. However, if you are really concerned about dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, you should think of diet as only one component of a holistic approach. As I described in a recent article How to Prevent Memory Loss, a holistic approach to preserving your cognitive function includes:

  • A healthy diet
  • B vitamins & omega-3s
  • Weight control
  • Exercise
  • Adequate sleep
  • Socialization
  • Memory training (mental exercise)

The Bottom Line

 

  1. The Mediterranean and DASH diets have already been shown to preserve mental function as we age, thus reducing the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s.
  2. Martha Morris at Rush University Medical Center used the latest studies on specific foods and nutrients that preserve mental function to modify those diets into something she calls the MIND diet.
  3. Morris and colleagues at Rush then evaluated the effectiveness of all 3 diets on reducing Alzheimer’s risk. Strict adherence to all 3 diets significantly decreased the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. The decreased risk was:
    • 53% for the MIND diet.
    • 54% for the Mediterranean diet.
    • 39% for the DASH diet.
  4. When the investigators looked at moderate adherence to each of the diets, the MIND diet performed slightly better than the other two diets:
    • Moderate adherence to the MIND diet decreased Alzheimer’s risk by 35%.
    • Moderate adherence to the Mediterranean and DASH diets had no significant effect on Alzheimer’s risk.
  5. Morris concluded that healthy diets, such as the Mediterranean and DASH diets, provide substantial protection against dementia. However, she feels that as new studies come along, these diets can be modified to provide even better protection. She considers the MIND diet as the first step in that process.
  6. Healthy diet is only one component of a holistic approach for preserving mental function. Other components include:
    • B vitamins & omega-3s
    • Weight control
    • Exercise
    • Adequate sleep
    • Socialization
    • Memory training (mental exercise)

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

Health Tips From The Professor