A new study published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has found that consuming higher amounts of plant protein, such as from beans, nuts, and whole grains, in midlife may promote overall healthier aging in women. The research was conducted by scientists at Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.
Background on Protein Intake and Health
Getting adequate protein in one’s diet is important for overall health and body composition. Protein is essential for building and repairing tissues and muscle mass, which tends to decline naturally with age.
However, the source of protein also matters for health outcomes. An overreliance on animal protein sources has been linked in some studies to heightened risks for certain chronic diseases. At the same time, plant protein sources like peas, nuts, seeds, and whole grains deliver not only protein but also various vitamins, minerals, fiber and beneficial plant compounds.
According to the study’s senior author, Dr. Martha Morris, a professor of nutrition epidemiology at Tufts:
“Timing of nutrients over the life course is important, since diet in midlife may already have consequences for disease development or prevention later in life given the long asymptomatic phase of chronic diseases.”
Tufts Study Design and Major Findings
The new Tufts research analyzed diet and health data on over 12,000 women who participated in the Nurses’ Health Study. These women, with an average age of 60, had repeatedly provided detailed information on their habitual diets over time, allowing researchers to estimate long-term protein intake from both plant and animal food sources.
Researchers then examined associations between protein consumption patterns and risk of common age-related chronic diseases. The major findings were:
- Women whose diets provided more plant protein as a proportion of total protein intake had significantly lower risks for cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and kidney dysfunction.
- Higher midlife plant protein intake was also linked to overall healthier aging based on a combined measure of chronic disease risk, mental health, and physical function.
- Replacing just 3% of calories from animal protein with plant protein was connected to up to a 50% lower risk for general unhealthy aging.
Dr. Morris commented on the findings:
“Substituting plant for animal protein, even in relatively small amounts, appeared associated with better health and aging…Our findings support dietary recommendations to increase intake of plant protein while curtailing animal protein.”
Potential Benefits of Plant Protein for Women’s Health
This new research builds on previous evidence pointing to health advantages of plant-focused eating patterns. Plant protein sources are packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and beneficial plant compounds that can influence aging. For example:
- Fiber plays positive roles in gut health and metabolic regulation
- Antioxidants combat inflammation involved in chronic diseases
- Nutrients like magnesium and potassium optimize blood pressure
Additionally, the sources of animal protein that many Americans eat regularly ??? such as red meat and processed meat ??? have independently been associated with higher risks for conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
So incorporating more plant proteins in place of some animal proteins may benefit midlife women’s health on numerous fronts. Study author Dr. Xiao-Ou Shu, a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University, commented:
“These findings suggest possible lasting benefits of changes in protein intake across midlife on healthy aging, not just disease risk.”
|Food Sources of Plant Protein
|Grams of Protein per Serving
|1/2 cup cooked lentils
|1/2 cup cooked quinoa
|1 ounce nuts (almonds, pistachios)
|1 tablespoon nut butter
|1/2 cup cooked beans/peas
|2 tablespoons hummus
|1 slice whole grain bread
|1 ounce tempeh
Perspectives on Future Implications
The research community expressed excitement and optimism about the study’s implications for future nutrition guidance targeting midlife women’s health. One independent expert in diet and longevity, Dr. Frank Hu of Harvard University, stated:
“This study sheds new light on the importance of consuming more plant proteins during midlife for healthy aging. Alongside other lifestyle behaviors like regular exercise, making small but steady changes to boost plant protein intake from sources like beans, lentils, nuts and whole grains clearly demonstrates meaningful benefits for long-term disease risk in women.”
Dr. Morris indicated that forthcoming national dietary recommendations may start reflecting this evidence:
“There is growing consensus around increasing plant protein intake during midlife. Our work makes crucial contributions to the foundation of knowledge needed to support future policy shifts.”
Outlook: Incorporating More Plant Protein in Midlife Diets
Transitioning to eating patterns centered around plant protein does not require dramatic overnight changes. As study co-author Dr. Shu highlighted:
“Substantially cutting animal protein intake may not be necessary to achieve health benefits. Even modest increases in plant protein appear impactful – these changes can grow over time as women discover new plant-forward recipes and options they enjoy.”
Some practical tips to boost plant protein intake include:
- Having hummus, bean or lentil salad, or peanut butter sandwich for lunch
- Snacking on unsalted nuts or adding them to salads or stir fries
- Choosing whole grain breads, pastas and brown rice over refined grains
- Exploring easy bean pastas, lentil soups and tofu scrambles for dinner
- Baking with whole grain flours like oat, buckwheat or rye
With this accumulating evidence revealing tangible benefits for midlife women’s health, experts expect dietary guidance and public health messaging to increasingly promote plant protein over the coming years. As Dr. Hu summarized:
“This represents an actionable opportunity to impact health trajectories and quality of life for aging women.”
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