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  • A new study indicates that plant protein is an important factor for healthy aging in women.
  • Researchers found that every 3% of daily calories that were derived from plant protein resulted in significant health benefits.
  • Other protein sources, like meat and dairy, didn’t share the same robust health benefits.

Plant protein, compared to other animal-based protein sources like dairy and meat, could be essential to healthy aging in women.

Those who eat more plant protein are more likely to be free from chronic disease, physical and mental impairment, and have better mental health as they age, suggests a new study published today in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

“This research provides a lot of evidence for the importance of protein in the health of older adults, especially protein intake that occurs in our middle adulthood, which is when we’re setting ourselves up for the risk of chronic diseases later on in life for physical and cognitive function,” Dr. Andres V. Ardisson Korat, DSc, a researcher at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, and author of the study, told Healthline.

“We found that dietary protein intake and in particular plant protein was associated with better health outcomes and healthy aging,” he said.

Researchers found that every 3% of total dietary calorie from plant protein was associated with a 38% increase in the likelihood of healthy aging in women.

“These findings are consistent with previous data showing an association between moderate protein intake and healthy aging,” Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS RD, Cleveland Clinic, and co-author of Regenerative Health, told Healthline. She wasn’t affiliated with the study.

Korat and his team analyzed data from more than 48,000 adult women in the United States between 1984 and 2016 to see how the protein makeup of their diet affected health outcomes from middle adulthood into old age.

The women were all part of the Nurses’ Health Study, a longitudinal study in which data was collected through questionnaires about diet, lifestyle, and health. At the beginning of the observation period, the average age of the participants was 48 years old. Their average diet included about 18% daily calories from protein, of which the majority (13%) came from animal protein, while only 5% came from plant protein sources.

Could this dietary information inform whether the participants would experience healthy aging or chronic illness?

Researchers defined “healthy aging” as a composite of factors including being free from 11 chronic diseases, absence of physical and mental impairment, and good mental health.

The 11 diseases noted were:

Between 2014-2016, participants in the Nurses’ Health Study were assessed for the presence of these 11 diseases. They also underwent physical function, subjective memory, and mental health assessments.

Of the initial group of women, 3,721 (about 7%) met the definition for healthy aging.

Protein is an important part of your diet and is responsible for a host of important functions in the body, including things like muscle growth and cell signaling.

However, not all protein is created equal.

The study authors found that plant protein, more than animal protein and dairy protein, was the strongest predictor of healthy aging.

Animal proteins, including dairy, have long been touted as superior forms of protein because they are considered “complete proteins,” meaning that they are able to supply the 9 essential amino acids that the body doesn’t inherently produce. Most plant proteins are called “incomplete proteins” because, typically, they only supply some of these amino acids or don’t contain them all in optimal amounts.

While animal protein can also be beneficial, especially if your overall protein consumption is low, there are risks too. Red meat in particular has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.

Researchers found that animal protein didn’t carry the same benefits for healthy aging as plant protein either.

If you want to make plant protein a bigger part of your diet, you don’t have to become a vegetarian or vegan. In fact you’re already likely consuming some amount of plant protein in your diet. Incorporating more plant protein means learning about high quality sources of plant protein and finding ways to make them a larger part of your diet.

“The protein that comes from those sources also comes with dietary fiber, high quality carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals, and some phytochemicals that are also beneficial for health,” said Korat.

“If you’re someone who is used to animal-based protein regularly, then a baby-steps approach may be the best bet for long term sustainability. Start by adding in plant-based proteins in meals, such as adding beans and legumes into grain dishes or on salads,” said Kirkpatrick.

Rich sources of plant protein include:

  • Black beans
  • Quinoa
  • Tofu
  • Edamame (soy beans)
  • Lentils
  • Oats
  • Pea protein powder
  • Peanut butter
  • Nuts

“A great way to add protein from plants is to increase our consumption of nuts and seeds. Try putting hemp seed over oats in the morning to add protein, adding nut butter to whole grain bread or in sauces, adding walnuts to salads, nutritional yeast for cheese on top of bean-based pasta, or having protein smoothies for meals and snacks,” said Kirkpatrick.

Women who included more plant protein in their diet were more likely to experience “healthy aging,” suggests a new study.

Healthy aging is described as being free from 11 common chronic diseases, not having physical or mental impairments, and exhibiting good mental health.

Plant proteins can come from a variety of sources, including nuts, beans, and grains, and are packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals.