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Science Nook: Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Mortality Risk

by Jenna Koroly, MS, RD, CSOWM, CDN

Beneficial for both our health and the environment, plant-based eating patterns have become increasingly popular over the past several years. Plant-based eating typically highlights vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and legumes, and nuts and seeds. The below study looks specifically at plant-based protein and animal protein intake as related to mortality risk.


Association Between Plant and Animal Protein Intake and Overall and Cause-Specific Mortality

Journal: JAMA Internal Medicine

This prospective cohort study included over 400,000 participants from the US National Institutes of Health-AARP Diet and Health Study. The data was collected from the years 1995 to 2011 and analyzed in the present study from October 2018 to April 2020. Participants completed the National Cancer Institute Diet History Questionnaire at baseline, which included 124 dietary items. Plant protein categories included bread, cereal, and pasta, nuts, beans and legumes, and other. Animal protein categories included red meat, white meat, and other (dairy products and eggs). Type of protein intake, overall mortality, and cause-specific mortality were studied [i].


The authors found:

1. Plant protein intake was significantly associated with reduced mortality from all causes in men and women

2. Plant protein intake was significantly associated with reduced mortality from all cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and other causes combined

3. “Plant protein intake was not significantly associated with mortality from cancer, heart disease, respiratory disease, infections or injuries/accidents”

4. “Stronger inverse associations for those with a BMI of 18.5 to 25, follow-up time of less than 5 years, consumption of 3 drinks or more daily for men, and for women who were younger than 60 years of age” or who reported lower vegetable intake

5. Replacement of 3% of energy from animal protein with plant protein was associated with reduced overall mortality and cardiovascular disease mortality, primarily due to substitution of plant protein in place of egg and red meat [i]

For the Patient and Caregiver

Evaluate your eating pattern to determine how to incorporate more plant-based meals. A great place to start is increasing consumption of your favorite plant-based foods. You can also focus on making a certain number of days per week plant-based, such as Meatless Mondays, or specific meals each day, such as plant-based lunches. For more tips on how to eat plant-based, check out this article. For plant-based recipes, take a look at our monthly recipes.

For the Healthcare Team

The mechanism behind varying forms of protein and the impact on CVD mortality may be related to types of amino acids, increased concentrations of a gut microbiome-generated metabolite [Richter et al., 2015 as cited in reference i], or bioactive nutrients including “heme iron, nitrates and nitrites, and sodium in red and processed meat [Etemadi et al., 2017 as cited in reference i] and unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins, and trace minerals in plant-based foods” [Lampe, 1999 and Huang et al., 2018 as cited in reference i]. Counsel patients on how to consume more plant-based foods including whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables than animal derived foods.


[i] Huang J, Liao LM, Weinstein SJ, Sinha R, Graubard BI, Albanes D. (2020). Association between plant and animal protein intake and overall and cause-specific mortality. JAMA Internal Medicine, E1-E12. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.2790

  1. This is very interesting Jenna. It would be great if we could understand the exact chemistry that leads to the differences. For example is it the saturated fat in the meat that does this harm, or the lack of protective phytochemicals in plants.

    1. Hi Marla,
      Agreed. Or if it is related to other components in animal products. Also, interesting how findings like these can be applied to each individual–e.g. if certain eating patterns work better for some than others based on microbiome or other factors.

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