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Plant-based proteins linked to better health among aging women

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Women with diets rich in protein -- especially from plant-based sources -- develop fewer chronic diseases and enjoy healthier aging overall, researchers report. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

Women who consume more plant-based protein tend to age more gracefully, a new study reports.

Women with diets rich in protein -- especially from plant-based sources -- develop fewer chronic diseases and enjoy healthier aging overall, researchers report in the Wednesday issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Overall, women who ate more plant-based protein were 46% more likely to be healthy into their later years.

"Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood," said lead researcher Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at Tufts University's Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, in Boston.

"We also found that the source of protein matters," Ardisson Korat added in a university news release. "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."

For the study, researchers analyzed self-reported data from more than 48,000 women participating in the Harvard-based Nurses' Health Study, which followed female healthcare professionals from 1984 to 2016.

The women entered the study between the ages of 38 and 59, and all were deemed to be in good physical and mental health at the start.

The research team evaluated surveys that tracked participants' diets, and then compared that information to the women's overall development of chronic diseases or loss of physical function or mental health.

Researchers found notably less heart disease, cancer and diabetes in women who included more protein in their diets from sources like fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes and pasta, results show.

Women who ate more plant-based protein also experienced less decline in their cognitive and mental health, researchers said.

However, women who consumed more animal protein were 6% less likely to stay healthy as they aged, data showed.

"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," Ardisson Korat said.

Animal protein was modestly tied with fewer physical limitations in older age, but plant protein had a stronger, more consistent link with sustained physical and mental health later in life, researchers said.

For example, higher plant protein consumption came with lower levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin sensitivity - all good news for a woman's heart health.

On the other hand, more animal protein intake was associated with higher levels of all those risk factors, the researchers said.

The benefits of plant protein might derive from other components in plant foods rather than the protein, researchers noted. Plants contain higher levels of dietary fiber, micronutrients and beneficial compounds than animal foods.

Overall, the team's findings support recommendations that women get most of their protein from plant sources, with a little fish and animal protein for iron and vitamin B12.

"Dietary protein intake, especially plant protein, in midlife plays an important role in the promotion of healthy aging and in maintaining positive health status at older ages," Ardisson Korat said.

More information

Johns Hopkins Medicine has more about nutrition for healthy aging.

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