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Plant protein linked to healthier aging and lower risk of disease

Women who eat more plant-based protein develop fewer chronic diseases and are generally healthier later in life, according to a study from the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University.

Focus of the study 

The research was focused on data from over 48,000 women. The data was obtained from the Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, which tracked female healthcare professionals from 1984 to 2016. At the study’s onset, the women were between the ages of 38 and 59 and were in good physical and mental health.

The researchers examined dietary surveys collected every four years. They analyzed the frequency of consumption of various foods to assess the impact of dietary protein on healthy aging. The Harvard University Food Composition Database was used to calculate total protein intake from all food items.

Key findings 

The experts found a striking correlation between higher plant-based protein intake and reduced incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, as well as cognitive and mental health decline. 

Women who consumed more plant protein were 46% more likely to maintain good health into their later years.

On the other hand, higher consumption of animal protein was associated with a 6% decrease in the likelihood of healthy aging. 

While animal protein was modestly linked to fewer physical limitations in older age, plant protein showed a stronger and more consistent correlation across all models, especially with mental health.

The source of the protein matters

“Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood,” said study lead author Andres Ardisson Korat. 

“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.”

Chronic disease 

For heart disease, in particular, higher plant protein consumption was associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. 

By contrast, increased animal protein intake was associated with higher levels of these markers and increased insulin-like growth factor, which is linked to various cancers.

“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,” said Ardisson Korat.

Interestingly, dairy protein (from sources like milk, cheese, pizza, yogurt, and ice cream) showed no significant correlation with better health status in older adulthood.

Broader implications

The study suggests that the benefits of plant protein might extend beyond the protein itself. Plant-based foods typically have higher proportions of dietary fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols, beneficial compounds not found in animal foods.

However, Ardisson Korat also emphasized the need for further research, particularly in more diverse groups. The Nurses’ Health Study primarily surveyed white females in the healthcare sector.

“The data from the study tended to be very homogeneous in terms of demographic and socioeconomic composition, so it will be valuable to follow up with a study in cohorts that are more diverse. It’s a field that is still evolving,” said Ardisson Korat.


The findings support the recommendation for women to consume most of their protein from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. However, the inclusion of some fish and animal protein is advised for iron and vitamin B12 content.

“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,” concluded Ardisson Korat.

The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition

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