Consuming protein from plants instead of meat may greatly decrease the risk of Type 2 diabetes, according to a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
Researchers tracked the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in 2,332 Finnish men for an average of 19 years after they had completed a four-day dietary questionnaire to determine protein intake. The men were 42-60 years old at the initial examinations, and 432 (18.5%) of them developed Type 2 diabetes in the following years.
The study found that replacing just 1% of calories from animal protein with an equivalent amount from plant protein was associated with an 18% lower risk of Type 2 diabetes. This link remained even when BMI was taken into account. Those with the highest consumption of plant-based proteins had a 35% lower incidence of Type 2 diabetes than those who ate the smallest amount, reports Food Navigator.
The benefits of a plant-based diet are well-known. Those in the plant protein market will add this research to a growing body of studies suggesting that consumers should cut back on meat in favor of plant-based foods. The National Institutes of Health has issued guidelines for physicians to consider recommending plant-based diets because they could be effective for reducing blood pressure, cholesterol levels and BMI, and could even cut cancer rates.
When it comes to Type 2 diabetes, these latest results are consistent with an earlier long-term study, which suggested that replacing meat — especially processed meat — with proteins from low-fat dairy, nuts and whole grains could significantly reduce risk. That study found that eating 100 grams of unprocessed meat per day was associated with a 19% higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, while eating just 50 grams of processed meats, like sausages and bacon, was linked to a 51% higher risk.
Not all vegetarian diets are equal, however. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has said vegans in particular must take care to eat a range of protein-containing foods — such as beans, grains and nuts — as they tend to be less complete on their own than meat-derived proteins. However, the idea that vegetarians must combine proteins at every meal has long been debunked. Vegetarian diets may not be inherently healthy, but research suggests they may play a beneficial role in preventing obesity and promoting health.
It appears that consumers are paying attention to the research. American red meat consumption is down by a third since the early 1970s to about 101 pounds per capita. While the number of vegetarians has stayed stable at about 3% of the U.S. population, the number of vegetarian product launches doubled in the first half of this decade. A 2008 study found that more than half (53%) of U.S. vegetarians said they ate a meat-free diet to improve their health.
Studies like this may sway consumers on the fence about committing to a plant-based diet, or encourage meat eaters to incorporate more vegetable proteins into their meals — a movement that companies like Tyson are preparing for by investing in alternative protein producers.