A new study out of Tufts University suggests that getting most of your protein from plant sources, like beans, nuts, and whole grains, in your 30s, 40s and 50s may promote healthier aging in women. The research was published Wednesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Study examines protein and chronic disease risk
The study looked at over 100,000 women in the Nurses’ Health Study and found that those getting more of their protein from plant sources had lower risks for chronic health issues like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, respiratory conditions, infections, injuries, fractures, and even mental disorders compared to women who consumed more animal protein.
“What stood out the most was that the intake of plant protein was associated with a lower risk for most major chronic diseases in women as they aged into their 60s, 70s and 80s,” lead study author Shilpa Bhupathiraju, an epidemiology research fellow at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told TODAY.
The researchers tracked health outcomes over 30 years for participants who were in their 30s to 50s when the study began.
Substituting plant for animal protein recommended
Bhupathiraju said the findings highlight the importance of focusing more on getting the majority of your daily protein from plant-based sources.
The study authors suggest even modest shifts like substituting one serving per day of animal protein for a plant protein may reduce risks for certain age-related chronic diseases.
“Replacing red and processed meats with plant protein sources over the long term could be an effective strategy to reduce risk of chronic diseases and promote healthier aging,” Bhupathiraju said in an interview with HealthDay News.
Women face unique health challenges
Women tend to outlive men but have more age-related chronic health issues, said senior author Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology and chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard Chan School.
“The findings underscore the importance of studying sex differences in risk factors for chronic diseases over the lifespan,” Hu told HealthDay. “Personalized nutrition recommendations based on biological sex may provide opportunities to reduce disease burden and promote healthy aging in women.”
The study provides insight on midlife risk factors that predispose women toward certain conditions as they get older, according to Dr. JoAnn Manson, chief of the Division of Preventive Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She co-wrote an editorial published with the study.
“Women increasingly are the major decision-makers when it comes to healthcare and diet in their families,” Manson wrote in the editorial. “As women continue in their multiple roles and responsibilities during midlife, a priority for preventive healthcare should include a quality diet with adequate intake of plant-based protein.”
Plant protein findings surpass prior research
The new findings build on previous evidence suggesting swapping red meat for plant proteins provides heart health benefits. But the Tufts study is the first large-scale evaluation showing plant protein consumption specifically during midlife may impact women’s risk of numerous age-related diseases, Bhupathiraju explained.
Plant protein sources linked to better health outcomes included nuts, beans, soy foods, grains, and some leafy greens and vegetables like spinach and broccoli.
Younger and middle-aged women should take note of the research when making dietary choices, according to Victoria Shanta Retelny, a registered dietician nutritionist who was not involved in the study.
“The study reinforces current dietary guidance to increase intake of plant protein sources, such whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and lentils,” Retelny said in an interview with HealthDay News.
Experts say findings resonate despite limitations
Experts told TODAY while the observational study does not prove cause and effect, the results still have public health implications given the large diverse group of women followed long-term.
“This study found strong associations between increased intake of plant protein during midlife and reduced risk of many different diseases women often face as they age,” said Connie Diekman, a registered dietitian nutritionist and past president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Diekman said while more studies are still needed, the message is clear that women should get protein from plants more often than animals.
Dr. Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, also found the magnitude of the findings striking given the robust amount of data pointing to plant protein benefits.
“While it doesn’t prove causality, this study clearly shows associations between increased intake of plant protein and reduced risk of chronic diseases,” Hyman said. “Given what we know about benefits of whole food plant-based diets, these results make a lot of sense.”
Both experts emphasized tailoring nutrition plans to individual health needs and concerns. But Hyman said for the general population, upping plant protein intake is a simple way women can take control of their well-being.
“Empowering women with knowledge that they can reduce risks for chronic diseases through lifestyle medicine gives them more autonomy over their health destiny,” Hyman said.
Key study details
|The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
|Plant protein intake in midlife (age 30-64) and subsequent chronic disease risk
|Analyzed 30 years of health data
|Key finding #1
|Higher plant protein intake associated with lower risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases
|Key finding #2
|Higher plant protein tied to decreased respiratory disease, infection, mental disorder, bone fracture, injury risk
|Observational data cannot prove cause and effect
The researchers aim to look closer at possible biological mechanisms behind the plant protein and health associations uncovered in the analysis.
Experts say the findings support current recommendations to shift toward more plant-centered diets and also warrant further investigation in both women and men.
Meanwhile, women entering midlife may consider adding more beans, lentils, nuts and whole grain foods as protein sources based on the study’s implications. Small realistic adjustments could pay dividends down the road.
“Focusing on swapping red and processed meat for even just one plant protein food a day could put women on a path toward better health as they grow older,” Hyman said.
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