A new Tufts-led study found women who ate more plant-based protein developed fewer chronic diseases and were generally healthier later in life.
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.
“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.