Vegan breakfast bowl – scrambled tofu, corn, beans, sweet potato and broccoli. Plant-based diet concept.

(© vaaseenaa - stock.adobe.com)

🔑 Key Findings:

  • Women eating more plant protein were 46% more likely to stay healthy later in life
  • Women eating more animal protein were 6% less likely to stay healthy in old age

MEDFORD, Mass. — Parents were always right when they told us to eat our veggies, and now a new study is showing why. Researchers from Tufts University reveal that women who consume higher amounts of protein, particularly from plant sources, tend to develop fewer chronic diseases and maintain better overall health as they age.

The study analyzed data from over 48,000 women and found a notable decrease in heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive and mental health decline among those who included more plant-based protein in their diets. The team compared plant-based protein sources such as fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes, and pasta to lower intakes from these sources.

“Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood,” says study lead author Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University, in a media release. “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.”

Older woman eating salad, following healthy diet and lifestyle
Women who consume higher amounts of plant protein tend to develop fewer chronic diseases. (© Prostock-studio – stock.adobe.com)
Researchers used data from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, which tracked female health care professionals from 1984 to 2016, starting when they were between 38 and 59 years-old and in good health. Protein intake was calculated using thousands of surveys collected every four years, tracking food consumption frequency and using the Harvard University Food Composition Database to total protein amounts.

The team found that women who consumed more plant-based protein were 46 percent more likely to remain healthy into their later years, while those with higher animal protein intake were six percent less likely to maintain good health.

“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,” notes Ardisson Korat.

Although animal protein displayed a modest relationship to fewer physical limitations in older age, plant protein showed a stronger, more consistent correlation with maintaining good mental health later in life. For heart disease, higher plant protein intake was associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity, whereas higher animal protein intake correlated with higher levels of these factors.

Dairy protein alone did not show a significant association with better health status in older adulthood.

Researchers noted that the health benefits of plant protein might be due to the dietary fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols in plant-based foods, rather than the protein itself. Ardisson Korat also acknowledged the need for data from more diverse groups, as the Nurses’ Health Study primarily surveyed white female health care workers.

“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,” says Ardisson Korat.

Older women, friends laughing
Plant-based protein sources include fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes, and pasta. (credit: University of Texas at Austin)
The study supports the recommendation for women to consume most of their protein from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds, while also including some fish and animal protein for essential nutrients like iron and vitamin B12.

“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,” concludes Ardisson Korat.

The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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