Study: Eating Plant Protein Linked To Reduced Risk of Chronic Diseases & Extended Lifespan

Eating protein from plant sources, supplemented with a small amounts of animal protein during midlife, contributes to better overall physical health.

By: Ellen Wan | The Epoch Times

Protein is a vital nutrient for the human body. Among various protein sources, plant proteins contain lower levels of fat and cholesterol while also containing more dietary fibre. Recent research has shown that increasing the intake of plant proteins not only reduces the risk of chronic diseases but also contributes to an extended lifespan.

11 Chronic Diseases Reduced

A study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February indicated that women who ate more plant protein in midlife had a lower likelihood of developing 11 chronic diseases as they aged. Additionally, their mental health, cognitive function, and physical well-being appeared to be better.

The study analysed data from 48,762 participants in the Nurses’ Health Study with a mean initial age of about 48 years, who were followed for more than 30 years. The researchers examined their intake of total protein, animal protein, dairy protein, and plant protein to assess the relationship between protein intake levels, protein types, and healthy aging.

The study defined healthy aging as the absence of 11 major chronic diseases, good mental health, and unimpaired memory and physical functions. The diseases were reported as:

  1. Cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer)
  2. Type 2 diabetes
  3. Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
  4. Stroke
  5. Coronary artery bypass graft surgery
  6. Congestive heart failure
  7. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  8. Kidney failure
  9. Multiple sclerosis
  10. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis
  11. Parkinson’s disease

The participants’ intake of animal protein sources included beef, chicken, fish, and seafood, as well as dairy protein sourced from milk, cheese, pizza, yogurt, and ice cream. Plant protein primarily came from bread, fruits, vegetables, cereals, legumes, beans, peanut butter, mashed potatoes, and pasta.

The results highlighted that for every 3% increment in the consumption of plant protein in the diet, the likelihood of experiencing healthy aging in the future rose by 38%. Additionally, dairy protein intake demonstrated a 14% increase, while animal protein showed a 7% increase, and total protein exhibited a 5% rise in the likelihood of healthy aging.

The researchers also found that substituting 3% of total energy intake with plant protein in place of equivalent calories from saturated fatty acids, polyunsaturated fatty acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, animal protein, or dairy protein significantly increased the odds of healthy aging by 22 to 58%.

Andres Ardisson Korat, the lead author of the study, stated in a press release that consuming more protein from plant sources, supplemented with a small amount of animal protein during midlife, contributes to better physical health and overall well-being in older age.

Specifically, the researchers found that participants who ate more protein from fruits, vegetables, legumes, bread, and pasta had a notably lower likelihood of developing heart disease, cancer, and diabetes compared to those who ate these foods less. Additionally, they experienced less decline in cognitive and mental health.

This was particularly evident in the context of heart disease, where a higher intake of plant protein was associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. Conversely, a higher intake of animal protein was linked to elevated levels of these factors, along with an increase in insulin-like growth factor, which has been identified in various types of cancer.

Ardisson Korat remarked, “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.”

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Reducing Mortality With Increased Plant Protein Intake

A large population-based study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2020 suggested that partially replacing animal protein with plant protein was associated with a reduced overall mortality. The study included 416,104 participants with a median age of around 62 years and a follow-up period of 16 years.

The findings indicated that replacing 3% of animal protein with plant protein in total energy intake reduced overall mortality by 10% in both men and women. Notably, substituting plant protein for egg protein was associated with a 24% decrease in overall mortality risk for men and a 21% decrease for women. Replacing plant protein for red meat protein resulted in a 13% decrease in overall mortality in men and a 15% decrease in women. However, substituting plant protein for 3% of total energy intake from white meat protein did not show a significant association with mortality risk.

Dr. “JJ” Shaw, a certified sports nutrition expert by the International Society of Sports Nutrition, expressed in his blog post that plant-based proteins contain unsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and vitamins, which can reduce inflammation. On the other hand, animal-based proteins, especially those in red meat, contain higher levels of heme, iron, carnitine, and nitrites, contributing to increased inflammation in the body.

Dr. Shaw mentioned that he always keeps baked black beans and pumpkin seeds at home as go-to snacks. These two snacks are considered among the least fattening, not only supporting overall health but also providing a rich source of protein. People with a balanced diet typically do not require additional vitamin supplements.

He pointed out that edamame, black beans, and (organic) yellow soybeans boast high protein and low fat content. While containing some starch, legumes feature enzymes that inhibit starch-degrading enzymes, leading to a notably low glycemic index. As such, they serve as excellent sources for protein supplementation.

Remin Kao, a nutritionist from Taiwan, notes that although pumpkin seeds and peanuts are rich in plant proteins, they also belong to the fats category. When incorporating them into your diet, it is important to be mindful of portion sizes. It is advisable not to exceed a small handful (approximately 30 grams or about 1 ounce) per day.

Ms. Kao stated that the recommended daily protein intake for a healthy adult should be approximately equal to body weight (in pounds) multiplied by 0.36 grams. A palm-sized portion of plant-based protein typically contains between 21 to 35 grams of protein.

She noted that a deficiency in quality protein could potentially result in reduced muscle mass, slowed metabolism, persistent fatigue, and a decline in energy levels.

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