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Can a plant-based diet make up for all your unhealthy vices?


black eyed peas
Photo: Stocksy/Herald Walker

Even if you’re only vaguely familiar with The China Study, you know the power of plants. (Quickie recap: Researchers found that a produce-rich diet can help ward off certain diseases, obesity, and diabetes.)

But if that didn’t convince you to fill up your plate (or, let’s be honest, bowl) with lentils and your smoothies with pea protein, a new study is praising plant proteins yet again, this time concluding that a mostly vegetarian diet may be enough to offset problem vices (think heavy drinking, smoking, or a serious case of Netflix-and-chill).

A team of Harvard University researchers analyzed data from over 130,000 people over several decades, tracking everything from diet and exercise (obviously) to lifestyle habits and stress (while taking into consideration hereditary factors). As you can imagine, with a study that went on for this long, not everyone lived to see the end: 36,000 people died, and 13,000 people were diagnosed with some form of cancer.

But after sorting through all the data, researchers found that there was a 10 percent lower risk of death for every 3 percent increase in calories from plant protein—even for those who had a penchant for alcohol and cigarettes. And the same held true on the flip-side: For every 2 percent increase in calories from animal protein, there was an eight percent increased risk in death from a cardiovascular disease.

Now before you ask for an extra scoop of spirulina in your smoothie while lighting up an American Spirit, keep in mind that the study’s not a free pass to indulge in some vices if you’re trying to avoid cancer and, er, death. Researchers found that “any statistically significant protein-mortality associations were restricted to participants with at least 1 of the unhealthy behaviors, including smoking, heavy alcohol intake, overweight or obesity, and physical inactivity.” In other words: Don’t cancel that gym membership just yet.

Convinced that it’s time to try some vegan recipes? These three are delicious—even if you’re used to eating meat. And here’s how an Ironman-running super athlete gets his protein as a committed vegan.