Increasing Plant-Based Protein by Just 3% May Help You Age Healthier. Here’s How to Do It – Verywell Health

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Key Takeaways

  • Everyone benefits from a health-promoting diet as they age, and protein can be a key player.
  • A new study found that women may age healthier when they increase their plant-based protein intake.
  • Just a 3% increase in plant-based protein intake was linked to a 38% increased likelihood of healthier aging for women in the study.

Everyone can reap the benefits of healthy eating as they age, but females, in particular, seem to see lower risks of frailty, cognitive decline, chronic diseases, and even premature death when they make certain changes to their diet.

According to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating more plant-based protein may support healthy aging, improve mental status, and have other positive health outcomes for females.

“The main takeaway of our study is that 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,” study author Andres V. Ardisson Korat, DSc, a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, told Verywell.

Here’s exactly how much (or rather, just how little) you need to increase your plant-based protein intake to reap these benefits, as well as expert-backed strategies for doing so.

A Note on Gender and Sex Terminology

Verywell Health acknowledges that sex and gender are related concepts, but they are not the same. To reflect our sources accurately, this article uses terms like “female,” “male,” “woman,” and “man” as the sources use them.

Protein and Aging Well

Protein is an important macro for older adults, linked to better muscle status, better physical mobility, and fewer bone fractures. However, few studies have looked at whether protein intake during midlife has an effect on healthy aging—and if so, which kinds of protein have the greatest effect.

To find out more, researchers looked at data from 48,762 female participants in a long-term health study (Nurses’ Health Study cohort) who were all under the age of 60 when data collection started in the 1980s. A food frequency questionnaire was used to determine the participants’ total protein, animal protein, dairy protein, and plant protein intakes.

From there, the researchers defined “healthy aging” as being in good mental health and not having major chronic diseases (such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and kidney failure) or impairments in either cognitive or physical function. The results of the study showed that 7.6% of the participants met the criteria of “healthy aging.”

Greater protein intake was linked to better odds of healthy aging. Specifically, for every 3% increase in intake of plant-based protein, the participants’ chances of being in the “healthy aging” group went up by 38%.

“Overall, protein intake was favorably associated with maintaining good physical function in older adulthood. However, these associations were stronger for plant protein and were also significant with good mental status at older ages,” said Korat.

But other kinds of protein were helpful, too. Each 3% incremental increase in total protein (not just plant-based) resulted in 5% higher odds of healthy aging. The odds increased to 14% for every 3% increment in the intake of protein from dairy sources.

That said, plant-based protein seemed to have the greatest effect. When participants replaced a certain amount of animal or dairy protein, carbohydrates, or fats in their diet with the same amount of plant protein, they saw positive changes in their health as they got older. For example, if they substituted just 3% of their daily energy intake with plant protein, their odds of aging healthily increased between 22% and 58%.

“These study results aren’t surprising because plant proteins offer benefits above and beyond being good sources of protein,” Melissa Azzaro, RDN, a registered dietitian based in New Hampshire, told Verywell. “For example, legumes are a good source of plant protein and also high in soluble fiber, which has benefits for cardiovascular and digestive health. Soy contains phytoestrogens and antioxidants that can protect bones and lower the risk for certain types of cancer.”

How to Increase Your Plant Protein Intake by 3%

Your healthcare provider is the best person to help you figure out how to increase your protein intake—and whether doing so would be helpful or harmful to your health. The study’s findings do not suggest that people should only eat protein while forgoing other key nutrients like carbohydrates and fats, nor do they suggest that people should exceed the recommended daily intake (RDI) for protein.

Once you’ve talked to your provider and established that increasing your protein intake is a health-supporting nutrition goal, the next step is figuring out how much protein you need a day and how much you’re currently getting.

For example, if you are eating 45 grams of protein per day, you would need to increase your intake by just 1.35 grams to reach the goal of consuming an additional 3%. If you have a greater protein intake of 60 grams per day, you’d need to increase your protein intake by 1.8 grams per day to hit that additional 3% mark.

“With every calorie of protein added to the diet, something else needs to be switched out, such as refined carbs or unhealthy fat,” said Kovat.

Eating more plant-based proteins does not mean that you have to completely give up animal-derived protein.

“Our study did not look specifically at animal-free diets. We evaluated the associations of total protein and of animal and plant protein with healthy aging,” said Kovat. “However, most participants consumed a mix of both.”

To guide your journey to increase your plant-based protein intake, here are some foods and serving sizes to consider when planning your meals and snacks:

  • Lentils: Half a cup of cooked lentils provides about 9 grams of protein.
  • Chickpeas: Cooked chickpeas offer approximately 14.5 grams of protein per cup.
  • Tofu: Half a cup of tofu gives around 10 grams of protein.
  • Quinoa: One cup of cooked quinoa contains around 8 grams of protein.
  • Chia Seeds: Two tablespoons of chia seeds provide about 4 grams of protein.
  • Almonds: A quarter-cup of almonds delivers nearly 7.5 grams of protein.
  • Spirulina: Two tablespoons of spirulina provide approximately 8 grams of protein.

Being creative and open-minded can help you add more plant-based proteins to your diet. For example:

  • Include more legumes: Lentils, chickpeas, and black beans are packed with protein and can be easily added to soups, salads, and stews.
  • Add seeds and nuts to your meals: Chia seeds, hemp seeds, almonds, and walnuts are excellent sources of plant-based protein that can be sprinkled on salads, smoothie bowls, or eaten on their own as snacks.
  • Incorporate whole grains: Grains like quinoa, brown rice, and oats provide plant-based protein and are a great source of fiber.
  • Use protein-rich vegetables: Green peas, spinach, and broccoli are vegetables that contain a decent amount of protein.
  • Try plant-based protein powders: These extras can easily be stirred into smoothies or baking recipes to boost your protein intake.
  • Explore plant-based dairy alternatives: Products like soy milk and almond milk can be used in the same way as regular milk and often contain added protein.

What This Means for You

Adding more plant-based protein to your diet—even just increasing your intake by 3%—could support healthy aging. Choose foods like plant-based dairy alternatives, protein powders made from plant ingredients, whole grains, and produce.

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