High-protein alternatives to red meat for improved health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published January 27, 2021

Key Takeaways

For those mulling a reduction in red-meat consumption, now may be the best time. In a recent population-based study published in the BMJ, researchers mined data from the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study in search of an association between red meat and mortality rates.

Across population subgroups, they found that increases in red-meat consumption over 8 years were linked with higher mortality risk in men and women. Increasing total red-meat consumption by half a serving led to a 10% higher mortality risk, whereas a similar increase in processed and unprocessed red-meat consumption was linked to a 13% increase and 9% increase, respectively. On the other hand, a decrease in consumption of processed or unprocessed red meat by half a serving per day was not linked to mortality risk.

Fortunately, there are plenty of protein-packed alternatives to red meat, which don’t skimp on taste. Here are five to consider. 


Nuts have become an increasingly popular nutrition source in recent years, with their prominent place in the Mediterranean diet serving as a sterling example. In addition to being chock-full of protein, tree nuts, including almonds, hazelnuts, macadamias, cashews, and pistachios, as well as legume seeds, such as peanuts, contain healthy monounsaturated (MUFA) and polyunsaturated (PUFA) fatty acids. 

Tree nuts and legumes are also a good source of:

  • Soluble and insoluble fiber 

  • Vitamins E and K

  • Folate

  • Thiamine

  • Minerals including magnesium, copper, potassium, and selenium

  • Xanthophyll carotenoids, antioxidants, and phytosterols compounds

These nutrients enhance diet quality and antioxidant status.

At one time, experts hypothesized that due to their high energy density, nuts and seeds could result in weight gain. Fortunately, this notion proved unfounded, and instead these foods control for satiety and boost thermogenesis. 

“Nut intake demonstrates benefits on health outcomes, preventing and/or treating some chronic disease related risk factors, such as changes in glycemic and lipid metabolism, oxidative stress, and inflammation,” wrote the authors of a review published in Nutrients. “However, further studies should be carried out to evaluate the effect of nuts on other pathologies, such as cancer and many kinds of inflammatory diseases.”


Red meat contains more saturated fats than chicken, fish, and vegetable protein sources, such as beans. The American Heart Association labels saturated fats “bad,” with saturated and trans fats raising blood cholesterol and exacerbating heart disease. 

The Association wrote, “The unsaturated fats in fish, such as salmon, actually have health benefits. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish and some plant sources, as part of a heart-healthy diet, can help reduce the risk of heart failure, coronary heart disease, cardiac arrest and the most common type of stroke (ischemic).”


Legumes, such as chickpeas, lentils, and green beans, contain a rich array of nutrients including protein, fiber, B vitamins, copper, iron, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. They are also low in fat and contain almost no saturated fats, as well as being devoid of cholesterol. Unfortunately, few Americans partake of this nutrient-dense food source, with legume consumption on the downturn.

According to the authors of a review article published in Clinical Diabetes, “Legumes are an integral part of many healthy eating patterns, including the Mediterranean style of eating, the DASH eating plan, vegetarian and vegan diets, and lower-glycemic-index (GI) diets. Along with being a highly nutritious food, evidence shows that legumes can play an important role in the prevention and management of a number of health conditions.”

The authors noted that a diet rich in legumes decreases the risk of type 2 diabetes, lowers lipid levels, decreases blood pressure, and helps with weight management.


Tofu originated in China and is made by curdling fresh hot soymilk. This cheese-like mixture is then pressed into solid blocks. It is buttery, easy to digest, and smooth. Coagulants give tofu its consistency. It is a healthier alternative to red meat, and a good source of protein replete with all nine essential amino acids.

According to the authors of an article published in Medicine, tofu “is an excellent source of calcium, iron, and some minerals, such as manganese, selenium, phosphorus, magnesium, copper, zinc, and vitamin B1. Tofu is also considered an excellent food from a nutritional and health viewpoint in that it is thought to provide the same sort of protection against cancer and heart disease as soybeans.”

The authors also noted that not only could tofu decrease the risk of heart disease, but they contain soy isoflavones, which can reduce the inflammation of blood vessels and increase their elasticity.

Poultry and eggs

Leaner protein sources that are lower in saturated fats, such as poultry and eggs, beat out red and processed meats for health benefits. Diets with high levels of red meat are linked to colorectal cancer.  In lieu of choosing red meat, the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center recommends going for chicken or turkey breast as well as eggs or egg whites.

“Remember that it’s still important to eat a diet that includes a variety of both plant and animal protein sources, in addition to plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains,” summed up Wexner. “Although individual plant protein sources (eg, beans, nuts, seeds and whole grains) don’t contain all nine essential amino acids, plant sources also offer more fiber and a different variety of vitamins and minerals than animal sources of protein. And even though individual plants don’t contain all nine essential amino acids on their own, when eaten in combination throughout the day, they do provide enough of the essential amino acids to meet the body’s needs.”

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