Plant Proteins and Unhealthy Lifestyle

Do Plant Proteins Protect You Against an Unhealthy Lifestyle?
The recent study published in Journal of the American Medical Association (click here) brought headlines such as, “High animal protein intake associated with higher, plant protein with lower mortality rate” or “Plant protein may help offset unhealthy habits” or “Increased plant protein in diet reduces risk of death, study says.The headlines, as well as the interpretation of the report are false.

If you live a healthy lifestyle it appears that no matter what your protein source is you will be fine.  That is – if you eat plants you won’t live longer, or if you eat a lot of protein you won’t live longer. For more of a definition of what unhealthy habits are see below.An unhealthy lifestyle is defined as smoking, heavy alcohol intake, overweight or obese, and lack of physical activity.

But if you have an unhealthy lifestyle: there was an increased risk of death with those who also had at least one other unhealthy lifestyle factor.
This study did not prove that high animal protein intake was directly and independently caused the increased risk of death in this group that was studied. The conclusions suggests that it’s not red meat alone that has the effect of reduced mortality with the poor lifestyle. It may be that red and processed meat has a  compound effect when high meat intake is combined with other unhealthy lifestyle factors. But when isolated against a person who is healthy, there was no effect about the dietary protein source.


Defining Lifestyle Factors

  • Smoking: never smoking or smoking for fewer than 5 pack years
  • Alcohol: Never or less than 14 g/d in women and less than 28 g/day in men. To define that one standard drink contains 14 grams of alcohol (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of distilled alcohol).
  • Obesity: BMI between 18.5 and 25
  • Physical Activity: 150 minutes per week of moderate level or 75 minutes per week of vigorous level.


Risk factors you can change:

  • Smoking: if you smoked, you decrease the risk of smoking every year you do not smoke.
  • Alcohol: drink 1-2 beers for men, 1 beer for women, or 1-2 glasses of wine for men and 1 glass for women. If you drink hard spirits, than a 1.5 ounce pour would be it.
  • Physical activity: 22 minutes a day of walking – or walk 1.5 miles per day – but better to walk 10,000 steps per day.
  • Obesity: get weight loss surgery


Do plant proteins protect you against an unhealthy lifestyle? Well, not so much.

Low in calories and high in nutrition

Low in calories and high in nutrition

There was not a relationship between protein intake and mortality.  That is, more protein neither made these people live longer or shorten their lives.

If you did have an unhealthy lifestyle, then eating a bit less processed meats and more plant proteins had a small – but barely significant- decrease in the mortality of the people in this study. Major sources of plant protein included bread, cereals, pasta, nuts, beans, and legumes.

Higher plant protein intake demonstrated a clustering of positive health behaviors and had a substantially healthier diet than those with lower plant protein consumption.”   Substitute the words “eating more vegetables” for “higher plant protein.” Is this shocking to anyone?

Those who ate the most plant protein also ate more fruit, consumed more fiber, ate more vegetables, ate more legumes, ate more nuts, ate more whole grains, ate more beans, did not have as much red meat, did not eat as much processed meat (bacon, lunch meat), but did eat the same amount of chicken, and more fish.

So if you have one of those unhealthy lifestyles – obesity, smoking, drinking, or no physical activity – eating more plants is better than less. But if you do not have one of those unhealthy lifestyles – it doesn’t seem to matter what you eat.

A reason for weight loss surgery – remove obesity then combine that with a change in diet, increase physical activity and reduce alcohol intake.


REFERENCE: Cited in the body of the text.



Dr. Terry Simpson About Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit

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