Recent research suggests that women’s diet in middle age can influence their future health. Researchers have found that women who incorporate more plant-based protein into their diet tend to develop fewer chronic diseases as they age.
The team at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University studied over 48,000 participants to evaluate the long-term effects of dietary protein intake on healthy aging in women.
The research team found that women who consumed more protein from sources such as fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes, and pasta had a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes compared to those who did not consume these foods frequently.
Participants who consumed more plant-based proteins also experienced less decline in cognitive and mental health. The study results were published in the American Journal of Nutrition.
„Consuming protein in middle age is associated with promoting good health in older adulthood. We also found that the source of protein plays a role. Consuming the majority of protein from plant sources in middle age, along with a small amount of animal protein, seems to be beneficial for promoting health and good survival into old age,“ said Andres Ardisson Korat, lead author of the study, in a press release.
The participants were part of the Nurses‘ Health Study, based in Harvard, which followed female health professionals aged 38 to 59 from 1984 to 2016. All participants were in good physical and mental health at the start of the study.
During the follow-up period, the researchers analyzed thousands of surveys of participants every four years. The survey examined the frequency with which people consumed certain foods, particularly those containing dietary protein, to understand their effects on healthy aging.
They then estimated the amount of protein intake by multiplying the frequency of each food with its protein content and adding up the total protein of all foods using the Harvard University Food Composition Database.
Subsequently, the team examined the diets of women who remained healthy, without developing eleven chronic diseases or experiencing significant declines in physical or mental well-being, and compared them to the diets of women with health issues.
„Women who consumed more plant-based protein, defined in 1984 as protein derived from bread, vegetables, fruits, pizza, cereal, baked goods, mashed potatoes, nuts, beans, peanut butter, and pasta, had a 46% higher likelihood of staying healthy into old age. However, those who consumed more animal protein such as beef, chicken, milk, fish/seafood, and cheese were 6% less likely to remain healthy as they aged,“ wrote the researchers.
The researchers observed that consuming more plant-based protein was associated with lower LDL cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and lower insulin sensitivity. On the other hand, higher consumption of animal protein was associated with elevated levels of these factors.
Moreover, exclusive consumption of protein from dairy sources such as milk, cheese, pizza, yogurt, and ice cream did not show a significant correlation with better health in older adulthood.
„Those who consumed larger amounts of animal protein tended to suffer from chronic diseases more frequently and were unable to achieve the improved physical performance we normally associate with protein consumption,“ said Ardisson Korat.
Based on their findings, the researchers recommend that women structure their diet in a way that most of the protein they consume comes from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. However, they also believe that women should incorporate some fish and animal protein into their diet to benefit from the advantages of iron and vitamin B12.
„Dietary protein intake, especially plant-based proteins, in middle age plays a crucial role in promoting healthy aging and maintaining a positive state of health in older adulthood,“ said Ardisson Korat.