Could a plant-based diet prevent chronic diseases in women?

Plant-based diets have been linked to a variety of health benefits, from reducing the risk of developing type two diabetes​ to aiding weight loss​. Now this relatively new way of eating has been linked to the prevention of chronic diseases in women.

Could a plant-based diet protect against chronic diseases in women?

A new study, conducted by researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University, has found that women who consume higher amounts of plant-based proteins are less likely to develop chronic diseases and maintain better health into older age.

What is the healthy aging phenotype?

The word ‘phenotype’ refers to an individual’s observable traits, such as height, eye colour and blood type.

The healthy ageing phenotype (HAP) encapsulates an individual’s ability to be socially engaged, productive and to function independently both at physical and cognitive levels.

The findings were derived from a Harvard-based Nurses’ Health Study, which followed 48,762 female healthcare professionals from 1984 to 2016. The women were between the ages of 38 and 59 at the beginning of the study and were deemed to be in good physical and mental health, with no history of any of the 11 chronic diseases that make up the healthy aging phenotype.

Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at HNRCA and lead author of the study, and his team, examined thousands of surveys collected from the women every four years. They observed how frequently people ate certain food types, to pinpoint dietary protein and its effect on healthy aging. 

The researchers then compared the diets of women who did not develop certain chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer, with the diets of those who did. Women who ate more plant-based protein were found to be 46% more likely to be healthy into their later years. By contrast, those who consumed more animal-based protein were found to be 6% less likely to stay healthy as they aged.

“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,” explains Ardisson Korat.

Which is better, animal protein or plant protein?

The results showed that animal protein was loosely linked to maintaining good physical health in older age, however plant protein showed a strong correlation to good physical health in later life and was additionally closely linked with strong mental health.

Higher plant-based protein consumption was also linked to heart health, as it contains lower levels of LDL cholesterol, which is linked to high blood pressure. This is in contrast to animal-based protein consumption, which is linked to higher levels of LDL cholesterol.

“Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood,” said 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.”

“It’s encouraging to see more attention being paid to the benefits of plant-based eating, and I hope this research will help inform future dietary guidelines,” added Kathy La Macchia of the Grains & Legumes Nutrition Council

What are polyphenols?

Polyphenols are a natural substance found within plants. Polyphenols are believed to help protect against the development of several chronic diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and asthma.

Foods and drinks known to be rich in polyphenols, include dark chocolate, red berries, tea and red wine.

The study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that plant-based foods are beneficial to heart health, mental health and overall longevity. However, it acknowledged that the benefits of plant-based foods could also be attributed to the nutrients they contain, including dietary fibre, micronutrients, and polyphenols. Further research will be required to fully understand the positive connection between a plant-based diet and women’s health.

How to enjoy a plant-based diet

Eating a plant-based diet might previously have been viewed as dull and tasteless, evoking images of a plate filled with lettuce leaves alone, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Plant-based diets offer a wealth of variety and colour, with nuts, seeds, pulses, fruits and vegetables all excellent sources of plant-based nutrients and protein.

In addition to this, there is an increasing number of companies producing plant-based alternatives to meat, such as meat-free burgers, sausages and ham.

As the NHS says, “With good planning and an understanding of what makes up a healthy, balanced vegan diet, you can get all the nutrients your body needs.”

Could a plant-based diet prevent chronic diseases in women? GettyImages/damircudic

Women’s health is finally under the microscope

Women’s health has long played second fiddle to men’s, with research, funding and most significantly clinical trials, being focused upon the male biological response.

“Research on women’s health has been underfunded for decades, and many conditions that mostly or only affect women, or affect women differently, have received little to no attention,” explained US first lady, Jill Biden, when announcing a new White House initiative on women’s health research on 13 November 2023.

Times are changing, and women’s health is getting the attention it deserves. As such, it’s likely that we’ll see many more studies such as this one, seeking to understand the impact of different environmental factors on the health of women.

Source: Dietary protein intake in midlife in relation to healthy aging – results from the prospective Nurses’ Health Study cohort
Published online: 17 January 2024
Authors: Andres V Ardisson Korat, M Kyla Shea, Paul F Jacques, Paola Sebastiani, Molin Wang, A Heather Eliassen, Walter C Willett, Qi Sun