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The argument for going vegan just got stronger as new research finds an animal-based high protein diet, particularly during middle age, could mean an earlier death.

Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Davis School of Gerontology followed more than 6,000 adults over two decades. Participants were from a variety of ethnicities and varied health histories.

According to the study’s findings, those people who consumed diets high in animal protein were “as likely to die as a result of cancer as a regular smoker,” the Huffington Post reported. Diabetes was a greater risk among the meat-eaters, too. And, the study also pinpointed animal proteins as “the culprit behind the 74 percent increased risk of death within the study period, from any cause. Even when controlling the amount of fats and carbs in the participants’ diets, high animal protein diets had negative health effects.”

It wasn’t just meat, either. Cheese, milk and eggs all contributed to the health risks. “Diets high in plant-based proteins, however, including foods like beans, lentils, and nuts, did not have the same dangerous effects as animal proteins,” reports the Post.

“The research shows that a low-protein diet in middle age is useful for preventing cancer and overall mortality, through a process that involves regulating IGF-I and possibly insulin levels,” study co-author Eileen Crimmins said in a release.

High protein diets were defined by the researchers as diets where 20 percent or more of the calories came from protein, and low protein diets were 10 percent or less. “But even moderate-protein diets in middle age were shown to result in three times the likelihood of death from cancer,” explains the Post.

What’s the exact cause? The researchers note that it could be the protein-controlled growth hormone, IGF-1, which has been connected with cancer deaths.

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Adam Kuban