April 10 (UPI) -- Diets rich in vegetables, like the Mediterranean Diet, have been gaining popularity in the last few years, supplanting those that feature steak, hamburgers and other red meat. Now, new research says that plant-based diets may be healthier for the heart.
Two studies released this week suggest that eating less red meat and replacing it with a diet rich in plant proteins can reduce a person's risk factor for having a heart attack, stroke or other cardiovascular event.
Researchers report that people who eat plant-based diets have a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease after they stop eating red meat and replace it with healthy plant, according to a study published Monday in Circulation. Those results were compared to people who ate less than 100 milligrams of red meat a day.
That supports findings from another study showing that men who eat more than 200 milligrams of meat per day had a 23 percent higher risk of death than those who didn't, according to research published Tuesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
"Previous findings from randomized controlled trials evaluating the effects of red meat on cardiovascular disease risk factors have been inconsistent," Marta Guasch-Ferre, a researcher at Harvard University and lead author on Monday's study, said in a news release. "But our new study, which makes specific comparisons between diets high in red meat versus diets high in other types of foods, show that substituting red meat with high-quality protein sources lead to more favorable changes in cardiovascular risk factors."
The researchers in the first study analyzed blood concentration levels of cholesterol, lipoproteins, blood pressure and triglycerides for more than 1,800 people who ate red meat, comparing them to those who ate diets rich in fish, chicken and plant proteins. They say this is the first meta-analysis study of randomized controlled trials to gauge the effects of switching out red meat for other types of food.
Men who took part in the second study who already had type 2 diabetes, cancer or cardiovascular disease had the greatest risk of dying after a 20-year follow-up. The researchers say this highlights the need to study the effect of red meat on people with pre-existing conditions.
The American Institute of Cancer Research recommends eating no more than 18 ounces of cooked red meat each week.
A poor diet can lead to heart disease, which kills one in four people each year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It's also a leading risk factor for diabetes and obesity.
Plant-heavy diets can cut the risk of heart disease by 25 percent, according to another study.
"Asking 'Is red meat good or bad?' is useless," said Meir Stampfer, a professor of nutrition at Harvard University. "It has to be 'Compared to what?' If you replace burgers with cookies or fries, you don't get healthier. But if you replace red meat with healthy plant protein sources like nuts and beans, you get a health benefit."