Eating Foods like Bread and Pasta Linked to Lower Risk of Death

Eating protein from plant-based foods, including pasta and bread, has been linked to a lower risk of dying.

In a study published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers looked at data on 416,104 men and women taken from a U.S. National Institutes of Health–AARP study on diet and health from between 1995 to 2011. They answered questions about their demographic, lifestyle and diet at the start of the study, and were followed-up after 16 years.

On average, participants got 15 percent of their daily energy intake from protein: 40 percent from plants, and 60 percent from animal proteins, including 19 percent for dairy.

Eating plant protein was linked with a lower chance of dying overall and from cardiovascular disease. The association was particularly strong when plant proteins from foods such as bread, cereal and pasta were eaten in favour of that from meat and eggs.

Swapping eggs for plant protein was linked with a 24 percent lower risk of death from the baseline in men and 21 percent in women. When it came to red meat, the risk dropped by 13 percent in men and 15 percent in women.

Replacing 3 percent of one's energy intake from animal to plant protein overall was tied to a 10 percent lower risk of dying from the baseline, and 11 percent lower chance of dying of a cardiovascular problem in men and 12 percent in women.

The link stuck even when the team accounted for different lifestyle choices that could affect participants' health, including smoking, diabetes, fruit consumption, vitamin supplement use, and overall health as reported by the participants.

The team said their findings provide evidence that changing one's diet may affect health and lifespan.

Past studies have shown that diets high in protein can aid weight and fat loss, perhaps because these foods help people to feel fuller for longer and use up more energy, the authors said. Substitution of some carbohydrates for proteins has also been linked to better cardiovascular measures such as blood pressure, as well as fat and sugar levels in the blood.

The researchers said their study was strong because the 15 percent calorie intake from protein seen in their respondents was similar to that of the general U.S. population, at between 15 to 16 percent. But it was limited because they relied on participants answering their questionnaires honestly. In addition, most participants were non-Hispanic white, which means the findings might not relate to other racial or ethnic populations.

Connie Diekman, former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a food and nutrition consultant who did not work on the paper, told WebMD meat protein often has higher levels of saturated fat, salt, and cholesterol which aren't generally good for our health. "For example, one ounce of red meat mixed with whole wheat pasta and veggies would provide much less saturated fat than a 9-ounce steak," Diekman said.

Victoria Taylor, Nutrition Lead at the U.K.-based charity the British Heart Foundation who did not work on the study, told Newsweek: "What this study can't tell us is what is behind the associations—different types of research are needed to do that.

"There are a number of theories as to why this might be the case though—it could be that eating less red and processed meat that is the benefit, or it could be that there are beneficial nutrients in the plant based protein sources that are having a positive effect. Or a combination of the two. It could also be something else that can't be accounted for by this study—we know that the people who ate more plant based protein were also more likely to have a lower BMI, eat more fibre and fruit and veg, do more exercise and be non-smokers."

Asked what readers should take from the study and whether they should opt for the plant-based vegan diet, Taylor said: "Including more plant-based proteins in your diet is a healthy choice and although a well-balanced vegan diet can be a healthy choice for your heart and circulatory health you don't have to do this to eat more.

"Try adding beans and lentils to soups, stews and curries you can use less meat and why not try having a couple of meat free meals each week?"

The study is the latest to suggest that avoid meat may benefit our health. In one study published earlier this year in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine found eating meat was associated with heart disease.

This article has been updated with comment from Victoria Taylor.

pasta, spaghetti, stock, getty
A stock image shows a fork picking up a twirl of spaghetti. Scientists have investigated the link between health and different protein sources. Getty