A major new study has found that women who eat more plant protein during young and middle adulthood have better health outcomes as they get older. The research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggests that substituting plant protein for animal protein may promote longevity and reduce risk of chronic diseases.
Study Details Link Between Plant Protein and Healthy Aging
The study analyzed data from over 116,000 female nurses who were followed over a period of 22 years. Researchers from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health examined the nurses’ protein intake from both plant and animal sources during young adulthood (ages 30-55) and related this to various health outcomes later in life.
Key findings from the study:
- Women who ate the most plant protein had a 9% lower risk of premature death compared to those who ate the least.
- Replacing just 3% of daily calories from animal protein with plant protein was associated with a 11% lower risk of death.
- Higher midlife intake of plant protein was also linked to lower incidences of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer as women aged.
This suggests that simply substituting plant sources of protein for animal sources may promote longevity and reduce chronic disease risk in aging women.
Lead study author Dr. Wei Bao commented:
“Substituting plant foods for animal foods, even simply by replacing one serving per day of red or processed meat with one serving of legumes, whole grains, or nuts, may have substantial health benefits.”
The study accounted for overall diet quality, BMI, smoking status and other lifestyle factors – indicating that plant protein seems to uniquely benefit health, beyond just eating an overall healthy diet.
Why Might Plant Protein Promote Healthier Aging?
Researchers propose several explanations for why plant protein may offer unique protective effects:
Animal protein sources, especially red and processed meats, have been linked inflammation which can trigger chronic diseases. Plant proteins are lower in saturated fats and contain beneficial compounds which may lower inflammation.
Gut Microbiome Changes
Plant protein results in different metabolites and gut bacteria which may improve immunity and metabolic health over the long term.
The nutrients, vitamins, minerals and fiber in plant protein sources help prevent diabetes, heart disease and cancer – leading to longevity.
Overall Diet Improvement
People who eat more plant protein likely have an overall healthier diet and lifestyle – accounting for some of the benefits. But this study suggests plant protein has benefits above and beyond diet.
The researchers concluded:
“Strategies to help women transition from animal-based diets to plant-focused diets could optimize dietary behaviors to promote long-term health and longevity.”
Health Experts Emphasize Importance of Protein Variety
In light of this study, health experts are advising women to ensure they get sufficient protein from diverse sources – both plants and animals – to support healthy aging.
Registered dietitian Rahaf Al Bochi told Healthline:
“It’s important for women, especially as they age, to focus on getting protein from a variety of sources like plants, chicken, fish, yogurt, and even supplements if needed.”
Al Bochi emphasized including both plants and animals for optimal amino acid intake:
“Each protein source differs in nutrients, so by eating protein from only plants or only animals, you’ll be missing out on some nutrients.”
Similarly, Everyday Health advisor Dr. Eudene Harry commented:
“To fully benefit from what protein has to offer, it is ideal to incorporate both plant-based and animal-based protein sources into your meals.”
For aging women, focusing on protein-rich foods at most meals provides sustained energy, preserves muscle mass and overall supports healthy aging. Variety between plants and animals is key to obtaining all essential amino acids.
More Research Needed on Plant Protein and Aging
While this study had a large sample over an extended period, experts note more research is needed to solidify the link between plant protein and healthy longevity.
Nutrition scientist Dr. Christopher Gardner told Healthline:
“This adds to the large body of evidence that supports eating more plant foods is better than eating more animal foods. Still, I wouldn’t get too carried away with the specifics here, as it’s just one study.”
Similarly, Dr. Constance Brown-Riggs told Everyday Health:
“While the study results are encouraging, longer-term randomized controlled trials on humans are needed before definitive conclusions can be made.”
So while this research makes a compelling case for plant protein, experts say more studies confirming the finding would give greater certainty.
In the meantime, registered dietitian Brianna Elliott suggests an easy rule of thumb:
“Aim to eat a minimum of three servings of plant protein each day from sources like legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains.”
The Bottom Line: Mix Up Your Protein Sources
This large study builds on existing evidence that eating more plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, nuts and whole grains provides longevity benefits as women age. Replacing animal protein with plant protein may lower inflammation, benefit gut health and reduce age-related chronic diseases.
However, experts emphasize the importance of continuing to eat moderate amounts of animal proteins like dairy, eggs, poultry and fish as well for optimal nutrition. The key is balancing diverse sources of both plant and animal proteins to support muscles, bones and healthy aging.
As researcher Dr. Wei Bao concludes:
“Our findings have important implications for nutrition guidelines and suggest that strategies to help women transition from animal-based diets to plant-focused diets could optimize dietary behaviors to promote long-term health and longevity.”
Going forward, more research is still needed to solidify the ideal balance of plant vs. animal protein intake. But shifting towards more plant proteins while maintaining some animal intake provides longevity benefits for middle-aged and aging women.
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