Replacing processed meat with plant-based food could reduce the risk of diabetes and heart disease, a new study has found.

Meat transformed through salting, curing, fermentation, smoking or other flavor-enhancing processes is called processed meat. Ham, sausages, corned beef and beef jerky are some examples.

The new study, published in the journal BMC Medicine, recommends substituting processed meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products with plant-based foods such as beans, nuts, whole grains, oils, fruit and vegetables for better cardiometabolic health and reducing all-cause mortality.

When a person swapped 50 grams of processed meat per day with 28 to 50 grams of nuts, there was a 27% reduction in the overall incidence of heart disease. Replacing the meat with the same amount of legumes brought a 23% reduction in heart disease. Switching 50 grams of processed meat with 10 to 28 grams of nuts per day reduced diabetes risk by 22%. The researchers from Germany made these findings after analyzing 37 published studies.

"This evidence highlights the potential benefits of shifting from animal-based diets, including red and processed meat, eggs, dairy, poultry and butter, to plant-based foods like nuts, legumes, whole grains and olive oil," said Dr. Sabrina Schlesinger, a senior author on the study.

The main strength of the review was that the results were not dependent on a single study, but were made after systematically summarizing all available evidence on the topic, Schlesinger said.

The study does not show a causal link but establishes an association. Although the findings were not "entirely novel," Schlesinger said the results were consistent with previous studies, indicating "a robust level of confidence in the effect estimate."

Researchers have not analyzed the reasons behind the health benefits of switching to plant-based food. However, one plausible explanation is the composition of processed meats in comparison to plant-based foods. Processed meat contains saturated fatty acids and high levels of sodium, nitrates and nitrites associated with cardiovascular and diabetes, while plant-based foods contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals associated with inflammation reduction.