MEDFORD MA – Women who consume higher amounts of plant-based protein reportedly develop fewer chronic diseases and are more likely to be healthier overall as they age, research published Wednesday (Jan. 17, 2024) shows.
A study led by a team in the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, at Tufts University in Massachusetts, indicates women encountered “notably less heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, and cognitive and mental health decline” if their diets included more proteins from fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes, and pasta.
“Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood,” said Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at the center and the study’s lead author. “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.”
The findings were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
The study was based on self-reported data from 48,000 women followed by female health care professionals between 1984 and 2016 in a Harvard University “Nurses’ Health Study.” The women were between the ages of 38 and 59 in 1984 at its start, and deemed to be in good physical and mental health.
Comparing women’s diets, and subsequent health
Ardisson Korat and fellow researchers examined surveys collected at Harvard every four years from 1984 to 2016. They sought to determine how frequently people ate certain foods, to pinpoint dietary protein and its effects on healthy aging. They then compared the diets of women who developed chronic diseases or physical or mental health infirmities with those who did not.
At the time, plant-based protein was defined as protein obtained from bread, vegetables, fruits, pizza, cereal, baked items, mashed potatoes, nuts, beans, peanut butter, and pasta. Women who ate more of those proteins were 46 percent more likely to be healthy into their later years.
Those who consumed more animal protein – beef, chicken, milk, fish and seafood, and cheese – were 6 percent less likely to stay healthy as they aged. That group “tended to have more chronic disease and didn’t manage to obtain the improved physical function we normally associate with eating protein,” Ardisson Korat noted.
For heart disease in particular, the study showed higher plant protein consumption came with lower levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol), blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. 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 researchers acknowledged the benefits of plant protein might derive from components in plant-based food other than protein. For example, besides protein, plants also contain a higher proportion of dietary fiber, micronutrients, and beneficial compounds called polyphenols.
But the study findings so far support recommendations that women eat most of their protein in the form of fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. They should also consume some fish and animal protein for their iron and vitamin B12 content.
- Bonus reading: “Top 15 sources of plant-based protein,” from Medical News Today, updated Jan. 10, 2023.