Protein intake in midlife matters

A recent analysis of the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) data suggests that the intake of protein, especially from plants, in middle age is associated with higher odds of healthy aging and positive mental and physical health status in older women.

A team from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, found the following midlife protein-related odds ratios (ORs) for later healthy aging measured at ages 70-93.

For each 3% energy increment from various protein sources:

  • 1.05 (95% CI, 1.01-1.10) for total protein
  • 1.07 (1.02-1.11) for animal protein
  • 1.14 (1.06-1.23) for dairy protein
  • 1.38 (1.24-1.54) for plant protein

In substitution analyses, significant positive associations were observed for the isocaloric replacement of animal or dairy protein, carbohydrate, or fat with plant protein — with increased ORs for healthy aging of 1.22-1.58 for each 3% of energy replacement.

On the measure of physical function, for example, replacing calories from all macronutrient variables with equivalent calories from plant protein was associated with 20%-60% higher odds of having no physical function limitations. Plant protein was also associated with higher odds for good mental status.

Higher plant protein intake has been previously associated with a better probability of achieving healthy aging defined by changes in functional impairments, self-reported health/vitality, mental health, and use of health services.  In contrast, animal protein intake in middle adulthood has been linked to an increased risk of premature death from chronic diseases.

Dr Ardisson Korat noted that the benefits of protein, especially from plant sources, would likely apply to men as well and increasing plant protein intake is not difficult. “If you want a snack during the day, eat a handful of nuts instead of potato chips,” he advised. Eating several meals a week featuring beans, peas, lentils, tofu, whole grains, or seeds is an easy way to boost dietary plant protein.

Physicians are therefore encouraged to advise midlife patients to meet or perhaps modestly exceed the recommended dietary allowance for protein of 0.8 g/kg per day and to make plant protein a substantial component of daily dietary protein intake.

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