Protein, a key nutrient for building muscle, may play an important role in healthy aging for women.
Researchers found women who ate more protein, especially from plants, stayed healthier as they aged.
Nutritious plant-based protein sources include legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
If you're hoping to age gracefully, getting enough protein may be a good place to start, new research suggests.
In a study published Wednesday in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, women who ate more protein, especially from plant-based sources such as beans and grains, had better health as they aged.
Researchers from Tufts University looked at data from more than 48,000 female healthcare professionals from 1986 to 2016. The study followed women who were in good health and in their 30s, 40s, or 50s at the start of the study.
The researchers analyzed surveys of what the women ate to extrapolate how much protein they were getting and compared the results with their overall health outcomes.
They found that women who ate more protein had notably lower rates of chronic diseases linked to aging, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and cognitive decline. The researchers measured protein intake based on the percentage of total calories. For example, participants who got about 18% of their total calories from protein were more likely to be healthy agers than those who got only 15% of their total calories from protein.
But not all protein was equally beneficial, said Andres Ardisson Korat, the study's lead author who's a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.
The biggest benefits were seen in women who consumed mostly plant-based protein — they were 46% more likely than their peers to remain free from major chronic illness and other physical and mental impairments as they aged.
In contrast, women who consumed more protein in the form of animal-based sources such as beef, dairy, and eggs were 6% less likely to maintain their health, in part because of concerns including higher cholesterol. They were, however, still healthier than women who ate less protein overall.
"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," Korat said in a press release.
Eating more plants can help you get essential nutrients as well as protein
Plant-based protein sources include legumes such as beans, chickpeas, and soy; whole grains such as oats and quinoa; and nuts and seeds.
The researchers hypothesized that plant-based foods might have been beneficial in the study because they're rich in nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, and compounds named polyphenols that stave off inflammation.
Protein is also key to building muscle, an important factor in preventing frailty as we age.
More research is needed to confirm what might be causing the apparent health boost of eating plant-based proteins. Future studies could also help explore who could benefit since the demographics in this study were limited to women of a specific age group and profession.
Overall, the researchers recommended eating for longevity by choosing mostly plant-based proteins, with some fish, meat, eggs, or dairy to provide vitamins and minerals such as iron and B12.
The results also suggest it's a good idea to start eating enough protein in your younger years before health issues arise.
"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," Korat said.
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