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New Research: Protein Linked To Improved Healthspan

Protein drinks, protein bars, high-protein diets…why is everyone all about protein? Well, aside from being one of the three macronutrients we need for energy and basic functioning, protein plays an abundance of roles throughout the body. Trying to build muscle? Protein. Trying to lose weight? Protein. Supporting healthy hormone production? Protein. Healing after injury or surgery? Protein. Building up your immune system? Protein. I think you get the point. 

We know adequate protein is essential for the growth and maintenance of healthy tissues throughout the body—and now a recent study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition shows us just how important protein intake is for healthy aging (and that the process starts earlier than you may expect).

Higher Protein Intake Linked To Longevity 

We’ve already seen (through studies like this one) that increased protein intake can protect muscle mass and strength (and therefore overall functioning) in elderly adults. But we didn’t have any studies on how protein intake throughout midlife impacts our health as we age…until now. 

In the aforementioned study, researchers used data from the prospective Nurses’ Health Study (NHS) to evaluate how the protein we eat (or don’t) throughout adulthood affects our chances of developing chronic disease, mental health issues, and cognitive/physical impairments later in life. The findings showed that increased protein intake was indeed associated with higher odds of healthy aging.

Read More: 5 Health Benefits Of A High-Protein Diet

Some more details: This study utilized information from the NHS study, which followed 48,762 female participants starting in 1984 (at which point they were all under the age of 60) through 2014 or 2016 (at which point they were ages 70 to 93). Throughout this period, participants completed food questionnaires that included their average protein intake and health status (think the presence of chronic diseases, mental health status, and cognitive and/or physical function). 

The researchers pinpointed 3,721 participants who remained free of 11 major chronic diseases, as well as cognitive or physical function impairments—and maintained good mental health—throughout the decades of the study. One thing they all had in common? They ate more protein than other participants.

That’s not all, either. In addition to assessing the impact of total protein intake, the researchers looked at specific protein sources: animals, dairy, and plants. 

In general, total protein intake was positively associated with the odds of healthy aging. Beyond that, though, plant protein (such as those from bread, vegetables, potatoes, nuts, beans, and pasta) showed the strongest link to healthy aging. In fact, plant proteins supported better outcomes in almost all areas of aging (physical function, mental health status, and absence of chronic disease). The researchers predict this extra benefit may be related to other beneficial components of plant protein sources, including fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols

Quick caveat worth noting: The researchers highlighted that this study utilized data from mostly white females, so further research on other populations is warranted. 

What Does This Mean For You?

If you’re hoping to live a long and prosperous life with as few health complications as possible (and who isn’t?), it may be time to start paying more attention to your protein intake. This research shows that what you eat now can make a difference in how you feel 30 years from now. Chronic diseases and other health concerns often take many years to develop, so those currently in their 30s, 40s, or 50s would do well to focus on making impactful changes to their diet and lifestyle now to avoid problems in the future.

Where to start? First, make sure you are at least meeting baseline protein recommendations of 0.36 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (this would be 65 grams of protein per day for a 180-pound person). This is the minimum amount of protein adults need to support basic body functions, maintain hormone and enzyme production, and prevent muscle breakdown. 

That said, many things can increase our body’s protein needs past this baseline, including exercise, calorie reductions for weight loss, injury or illness, and pregnancy or breastfeeding. To ensure adequate intake, I recommend most adults aim for 0.55 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day (that’s 99 to 162 grams of protein per day for a 180-pound person). A notable exception to this would be anyone with kidney disease. This population should stick to that baseline protein intake unless otherwise directed by their doctor or dietitian. 

Read More: ‘I’m A Sports Dietitian—And These Are My Go-To High-Protein Snacks’

As you increase overall protein intake, up your plant-based protein. Plant foods have the most notable positive effects on long-term health, as seen both in this study and in others. Try swapping out regular pasta for lentil or chickpea pasta, which offer more protein. Incorporate higher-protein grains, such as quinoa, teff, amaranth, wild rice, and farro. Add beans and seeds to salads, and pair nuts or nut butter with fruit for snacks. Stir-fry tofu or tempeh in place of meat and incorporate a couple of cups of veggies with every meal (because yes…even veggies have protein!). 

Finally, eat consistently throughout the day to help meet your daily needs. It becomes increasingly hard to meet your daily protein requirements when you skip meals! A good goal for many people is to shoot for about 30 grams of protein at each meal (or three to four times per day). That’s just four ounces of meat, poultry, or fish or one cup of beans plus one cup of quinoa. Starting the day with a high-protein breakfast (like eggs or scrambled tofu) can keep you from playing catch-up later. As an added bonus, getting more protein earlier in the day can also help curb hunger and sweets cravings! Some people may find it helpful to incorporate a protein-packed shake or simple protein powder, which make for convenient snacks or meals when on the go. Extra points for a plant-based protein powder here! (Find the right protein for your needs at VitaminShoppe.com.)

The Big Takeaway

Bottom line: Consuming ample protein supports healthy aging. Meet your protein needs throughout midlife to support decreased risk of chronic diseases, cognitive and mental health decline, and physical impairment in your later years. Do your best to incorporate more plant-based proteins for better overall health outcomes. 

If you’re unsure how much protein is best for your specific needs, a registered dietitian can help you design a healthy eating plan that will have you feeling your best now…and years down the road! (Healthy Awards members can schedule a free nutrition consultation with one of The Vitamin Shoppe’s credentialed nutritionists.)

Rebekah Feemster RDN headshot

Rebekah Feemster, R.D.N., L.D.N., is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a passion for food and fitness. She also holds a Certificate in Adult Weight Management from the Commission on Dietetic Registration. Rebekah has experience working in hospitals, corporate wellness, fitness and rehab facilities, and holistic health. Rebekah finds joy in sharing her nutrition knowledge and helping others develop a healthy relationship with food and their bodies. When she’s not talking about (or making) food, you’ll find her outside doing yoga, hiking, or tending her backyard chickens.

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