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food for thought

There is increasing awareness around the health benefits of cutting back on red meat.

Many studies, for example, have found that replacing red meat with poultry, dairy, eggs, nuts or beans and lentils guards against coronary heart disease.

Now, a comprehensive evidence review suggests that substituting different animal foods – not only red meat – with various plant-based foods protects against cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and premature death.

This doesn’t mean you have to adopt a vegan diet. Even small daily diet shifts can benefit cardiometabolic health. Here’s what to know.

The latest research

For the review, published Nov. 16 in the journal BMC Medicine, German researchers analyzed the results of 37 studies conducted in the U.S., Europe and Asia which included healthy adults. Participants were followed, on average, for 19 years.

Studies were included in the analysis if they investigated the link between the substitution of plant-based food for animal-based food and the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and/or premature death. (Animal-based foods include red meat, poultry, fish, shellfish, dairy and eggs, and plant-based foods include beans, nuts, seeds, soy, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and oils.)

Replacing 50 g of processed red meat with 28 to 50 g of nuts each day was tied to a 27-per-cent lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease (including heart disease, heart attack, stroke and cardiovascular mortality).

Swapping out 50 g of processed red meat for 50 g of legumes (e.g., beans, lentils, soybeans) or 30 g of whole grains each day was associated with, respectively, a 23- and 36-per-cent reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

For perspective, 28 g of nuts is equivalent to 20 almonds, 15 cashews or pecans, 20 walnut halves or 30 pistachios; 50 g of legumes is equivalent to one-third cup of chickpeas or edamame or one-quarter cup of lentils; 30 g of whole grains is equivalent to one-half cup of cooked whole grain (e.g., oats, brown rice, whole wheat pasta) or one slice of 100 per cent whole grain bread.

Replacing one egg with 28 g of nuts a day was tied to protection from cardiovascular disease, as well as all-cause mortality. So was substituting one teaspoon olive oil for a teaspoon of butter; this also lowered the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The researchers observed a 10-per-cent lower risk of type 2 diabetes when 50 g of red meat was traded for 10 g of nuts or 11 to 30 g of whole grains. Swapping out 50 g of processed red meat for a larger quantity of nuts, 10 to 28 g., was tied to a 22-per-cent lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

The certainty of evidence for these findings was graded as “moderate,” meaning it’s probable that the true risk is close to the risk determined by the researchers.

Limitations, strengths

The studies included in the evidence review were observational so the findings don’t prove that replacing animal foods with plant-based alternatives directly caused the resulting health benefits.

It’s possible that people who ate more plant-based foods led healthier lifestyles. However, all included studies controlled for participants’ lifestyle habits and the results remained the same.

According to Dr. Sabrina Schlesinger, senior study author, “the most important take-away from our study is the robust evidence supporting the positive impact of substituting animal-based foods with plant-based foods on cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and all-cause mortality.”

8 easy plant-based swaps

1. Instead of ground meat, fill tacos and burritos with seasoned black beans, pinto beans or diced extra-firm tofu. Use 100 per cent whole wheat tortillas.

2. Replace meat in stir fries with shelled edamame, cubed tofu or cashews. Serve with a whole grain such as quinoa, brown rice, farro or soba noodles (made from 100 per cent buckwheat flour).

3. Substitute homemade black bean burgers for beef burgers.

4. Stuff bell peppers with cooked farro and crumbled tempeh instead of ground beef.

5. Try a pasta made from black beans, chickpeas, lentils or edamame. Serve it with a meatless marinara sauce with vegetables.

6. Add nuts or seeds and leftover cooked whole grains to green leafy salads instead of animal protein.

7. Trade scrambled eggs for a tofu scramble made with crumbled extra-firm tofu, bell pepper, baby spinach, onion, garlic and spices such as cumin, turmeric and chili powder.

8. Swap out butter for olive oil when cooking and baking. Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 410 degrees Fahrenheit (210 Celsius), making it suitable for oven roasting, sautéing and stir-frying over medium-high heat. (Smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil starts to burn and smoke.)

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

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