Simple Swaps May Save Your Heart

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Some simple swaps in your diet could make a significant difference in your risk for coronary heart disease (CHD), according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal.

Adding beans, nuts, or soy-based foods in place of red meat may be just the ticket. Including whole grains as well as dairy products in place of red meat, processed red meat, and eggs may also make a difference.

There has been plenty of research that links high intake of red meat and processed meats like bacon, salami, hot dogs, etc with increased risk of death, along with an increased risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses. Until recently, research comparing other protein and calorie sources with red meat have been inconsistent.

A group of US researchers evaluated the connection between total processed and unprocessed red meat and risk of CHD, exploring the impact of using alternate protein sources for red meat. The research was based on a sample of over 43,000 US men with an average age of 53 from the Health Professionals Follow-Up study. These men did not have heart disease or cancer when enrolled.

Subjects first provided detailed diet histories in 1986. They did so again every four years after that, all the way until 2016. They also offered medical histories and lifestyle information. Over the 30 year period, CHD events were tracked using medical records. In this timeframe, over 4,400 CHD events were recorded. 1,860 of those were fatal.

When reviewing the data, the researchers discovered that for every single serving per day, total red meat consumption was linked with a 12% higher risk of CHD. This was after consideration of other cardiovascular disease risk factors. Similar links were observed for unprocessed and processed red meat intake -- 11% and 15% higher risk of CHD, respectively.

Consumption of one serving per day of plant-based protein sources like nuts, legumes, and soy products was associated with a 14% lower chance of CHD, compared with red meat. Men over the age of 65 who ate plant-based protein had an even lower risk (18%) when compared with intake of processed meat (17%).

A lower risk of CHD was also observed when whole grains and dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt were substituted for total red meat, processed red mea,t and eggs. This link was stronger in younger men, showing a 20% lower risk of CHD.
Surprisingly, including fish in place of red meat was not linked with a reduced risk of CHD. However, the researchers believe cooking methods such as deep frying and the fact that fish was included as a “processed fish product” could affect the evaluation of that risk.

This study cannot establish cause as it was observational, although it did adjust for personal and lifestyle factors. Other factors that weren’t measured may have affected the results. Most of the subjects were white health professionals and their results may not be widely applicable. However, the study did show that intake of red meat and processed meat is still linked with higher risk of CHD. Replacing red meat (or animal protein in general) also has a positive impact on the environment.

Dietitians and health care professionals can help their clients reduce red meat intake with these tips:

  • Go plant-based at breakfast. Add avocados or nut butters to toast or toss some chopped nuts and ground flaxseed into oatmeal.
  • Add legumes to salads in place of eggs to boost protein and fiber.
  • Try a hummus wrap on a whole wheat tortilla with chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives, and feta cheese.
  • Try soy-based crumbles instead of red meat for tacos, chili, or spaghetti
  • Swap regular burgers with plant-based alternatives such as Beyond Beef, Impossible burgers, or bean-based burgers.
  • Make meatless chili. Black, kidney, and red beans combined with tomatoes, spices or salsa creates a satisfying chili.
  • Add nuts or seeds to salads in place of bacon bits for a savory crunch.
  • Stock up on Greek yogurt or light string cheese and whole grain crackers for snacks.
  • Experiment with tofu in your next stir fry.
  • Use aquafaba (whipped bean juice from garbanzo beans) as an egg substitute. This is also a great way to reduce waste!

By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD


  1. Laila Al-Shaar, Ambika Satija, Dong D Wang, Eric B Rimm, Stephanie A Smith-Warner, Meir J Stampfer, Frank B Hu, Walter C Willett. Red meat intake and risk of coronary heart disease among US men: prospective cohort study. BMJ, 2020; m4141 DOI: 10.1136/bmj.m4141
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