Women wishing to maintain their health later in life should probably increase their protein intake and focus on it coming from plant-based sources. New research from Tufts University found women who consume higher amounts of protein, especially plant-based protein, are more likely to to be healthier and develop fewer chronic diseases as they age.
Scientists at Tufts looked at data from more than 48,000 women who self-reported their eating habits and found better long-term health among the subset that had increased protein intake. They saw much less heart disease, cancer, diabetes and mental health decline in those who had more protein intake from sources like fruits, vegetables, beans, legumes, break and pasta compared to those who had less protein intake.
"Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood," said Andres Ardisson Korat, the lead author of the study. "We also found that the source of protein matters. 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."
The data was from the Nurses’ Health Study which tracked female health care professionals between 1984 and 2016. The Harvard-based study included women deemed to be in good physical and mental health between the ages of 38 and 59 at the outset of the study in 1984.
Researchers examined thousands of surveys collected every four years and noted how frequently people ate certain foods to track protein intake. They calculated the amount of protein by multiplying the number of times each food item was eaten by its protein content.
They then looked at the women who did not develop any of the 11 chronic diseases selected, or did not lose a lot of physical function or experience mental health challenges and compared their diets with those from the study who did experience trouble.
The women who ate more plant-based protein were 46 percent more likely to be healthy into their later years. Those who consumed mainly animal protein were 6 percent less likely to stay healthy as they aged.
"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.
Those who had higher plant-protein intake had lower cholesterol, blood pressure and insulin sensitivity, but those who had more animal protein did have slightly fewer physical limitations later in life.
Researchers acknowledged the benefits seen in those who ate more plant protein may also be from the other beneficial elements in plant-based foods such as fiber, micronutrients and polyphenols rather than just the protein alone.