Plant Protein-Based Diet Is Key to Healthier Aging for Women

Summary: A new study reveals that women consuming higher amounts of plant-based protein experience fewer chronic diseases and maintain better health as they age.

Analyzing data from over 48,000 women in the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, the research showed a significant link between plant protein intake and reduced risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline. Protein source matters, with plant proteins being more beneficial for long-term health compared to animal proteins.

Key Facts:

  1. The study analyzed data from 1984 to 2016, involving 48,000 women, initially in good health, aged 38 to 59.
  2. Women with higher intake of plant-based proteins had a 46% higher likelihood of healthy aging, compared to a 6% decrease in those consuming more animal protein.
  3. Plant proteins were strongly linked to better heart health, lower LDL cholesterol, and improved mental health in later years, unlike animal proteins.

Source: Tufts University

Women who consume higher amounts of protein, especially protein from plant-based sources, develop fewer chronic diseases and are more likely to be healthier overall as they age, according to a study led by researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University and published Jan. 17 in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Analyzing self-reported data from more than 48,000 women, the researchers saw notably less heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and cognitive and mental health decline, in those who included more protein in their diets from sources such as fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes, and pasta, compared to those who ate less.

This shows veggies.
The women were between the ages of 38 and 59 in 1984 and deemed to be in good physical and mental health at the start of the study. Credit: Neuroscience News

“Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood,” said Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at the HNRCA and lead author of the study. “We also found that the source of protein matters. Getting the majority of your protein from plant sources at midlife, plus a small amount of animal protein seems to be conducive to good health and good survival to older ages.”

Findings were derived from the seminal Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, which followed female health care professionals from 1984 to 2016. The women were between the ages of 38 and 59 in 1984 and deemed to be in good physical and mental health at the start of the study.

Ardisson Korat and fellow researchers, including senior author Qi Sun of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examined thousands of surveys collected every four years from 1984 to 2016 on how frequently people ate certain foods to pinpoint dietary protein and its effects on healthy aging. They calculated protein intake by multiplying the number of times each food item was consumed by its protein content and then, using the Harvard University Food Composition Database, totaling the amount of protein across all food items.

The researchers then compared the diets of women who didn’t develop 11 chronic diseases or lose a lot of physical function or mental health, with the diets of those who did.

Women who ate more plant-based protein, which in 1984 was defined as protein obtained from bread, vegetables, fruits, pizza, cereal, baked items, mashed potatoes, nuts, beans, peanut butter, and pasta, were 46 percent more likely to be healthy into their later years.

Those who consumed more animal protein such as beef, chicken, milk, fish/seafood, and cheese, however, were 6 percent less likely to stay healthy as they aged.

“Those who consumed greater amounts of animal protein tended to have more chronic disease and didn’t manage to obtain the improved physical function that we normally associate with eating protein,” said Ardisson Korat.

Animal protein was modestly tied with fewer physical limitations in older age, but plant protein had a stronger, more consistent correlation across all observed models, and was more closely linked with sound mental health later in life.

For heart disease in particular, higher plant protein consumption came with lower levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol), blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity, while higher animal protein intake was tied to higher levels, along with increased insulin-like growth factor, which has been detected in multiple cancers.

Dairy protein alone (mainly milk, cheese, pizza, yogurt, and ice cream) was not significantly associated with better health status in older adulthood.

The team acknowledged that the benefits of plant protein might derive from components in plant-based food, rather than the protein—compared to animal foods, plants contain a higher proportion of dietary fiber, micronutrients, and beneficial compounds called polyphenols that are present in plants, rather than exclusively protein.

Ardisson Korat also said data from other groups is needed, as the Nurses’ Health Study surveyed primarily white females working in health care. “The data from the study tended to be very homogeneous in terms of demographic and socioeconomic composition, so it will be valuable to follow up with a study in cohorts that are more diverse. It’s a field that is still evolving,” said Ardisson Korat.

But the team’s findings so far support the recommendation that women eat most of their protein in the form of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, although they should also consume some fish and animal protein for their iron and vitamin B12 content.

“Dietary protein intake, especially plant protein, in midlife plays an important role in the promotion of healthy aging and in maintaining positive health status at older ages,” Ardisson Korat said.

Funding: Research reported in this article was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, and by the National Institutes of Health under award numbers UM1CA186107 (National Cancer Institute), P01CA87969 (National Cancer Institute), R01DK120870 (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases), U2CDK129670 (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases), R01DK127601 (National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases), R01HL060712 (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute), R01HL034594 (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute), R01HL035464 (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute), and R01HL088521 (National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute). Andres Ardisson Korat was supported by training grant KL2TR002545 from the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. Complete information on authors, funders, limitations and conflicts of interest is available in the published paper.

The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the National Institutes of Health.

About this diet and aging research news

Author: Lisa LaPoint
Source: Tufts University
Contact: Lisa LaPoint – Tufts University
Image: The image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original Research: The findings will appear in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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