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New Study Concludes that Healthy Diets and Healthy Lifestyle Factors are Associated with Lower Mortality

Shalene McNeill, PhD, RD

Executive Director, Nutrition Research

National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, a contractor to the Beef Checkoff

The headline of this study should be ‘healthy diets + healthy lifestyle factors = healthy people.’ If one doesn’t read beyond the conclusions of the paper, they may be led to think that a “substitution of plant protein for animal protein” is the answer to reducing mortality.[i] In reality, the authors acknowledge deeper into the paper that people need to eat a variety of foods and follow overall healthy lifestyles in order to be healthy and reduce mortality.

The results of this study suggest that healthy lifestyle factors, such as maintaining a healthy weight, getting enough physical activity, abstaining from smoking and consuming alcohol in moderation, may be more important than diet alone. One of the greatest challenges in drawing conclusions from this study is that just 16 percent of the population achieved these healthy lifestyle patterns. Additionally, the study showed that people who have healthy lifestyle patterns also tended to have healthy, well-balanced diets, consuming about the same amounts of red meat, eggs, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy – whether or not they were in the healthy plant protein or healthy animal protein group. Finally, the study shows that those with healthy lifestyle patterns, consumed on average nearly the same amount of unprocessed red meat regardless of whether they were classified as ’animal’ or ’plant’ protein consumers. In fact, the authors acknowledge in their corresponding press release that “more careful analysis revealed that the association of animal protein intake with an elevated mortality risk only applied to participants with at least one factor associated with an unhealthy lifestyle – being either obese or underweight, heavy alcohol consumption, a history of smoking or physical activity. In fact, the association disappeared in participants with a healthy lifestyle.”

As a registered dietitian and nutrition scientist whose expertise is to evaluate these types of studies and provide real-life, common sense information to help people eat healthier for a lifetime, I will continue to recommend high-quality, nutrient-dense animal protein, like lean beef, as part of a healthy, balanced diet. I recognize that sometimes the age-old advice of the combined benefits of eating a well-balanced diet and not over-eating, exercising regularly, not smoking and drinking in moderation isn’t an exciting headline, but the reality is that according to leading authorities, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this continues to be the best long-term advice to help reduce the risk of chronic disease and live healthfully.[ii], [iii]

For more information on how you can build a healthy, balanced diet that includes adequate protein intake, I encourage you to learn more about beef’s valuable nutrient profile at

[i] Song M., Fung T, et al. “Association of Animal and Plant Protein Intake with All-Cause and Cause-Specific Mortality.” JAMA Intern Med. 2016; 4182.

[ii] U.S. Department of Agriculture Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. Appendix 1: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans; Appendix 9: Alcohol.

[iii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Physical Activity: A report of the Surgeon General. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol Use and Your Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tobacco-Related Mortality.


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