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How to eat more plant protein as study finds it can slash cancer risk

Brunette model hand holding glass hermetic pot with mix of nuts. plant proteins
Plant proteins like nuts have been found to slash cancer and heart disease risk in women. (Getty Images)

Plant proteins have been labelled as the ‘unsung heroes’ in the world of nutrition – and now there’s even more scientific reason to back this up.

A new large-scale study has found that women who consume higher amounts of plant protein can slash this risk of cancer and heart disease later in life.

Looking at data of 48,000 women between 1984 and 2016, researchers also discovered that those who ate more plant protein were nearly 50% more likely to have a healthier old age.

In fact, along with notably less heart disease and cancer, the research team also saw less prevalence of diabetes, and cognitive and mental health decline in women who consumed lots of plant-based protein.

"Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood," Dr Andres Ardisson Korat from Tufts University, Boston, said.

"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."

The women included in the study were between the ages of 38 and 59 and in good health when the study began, and it found that those who consumed more animal protein such as beef, chicken, milk, fish, and cheese, were 6% less likely to stay healthy as they aged.

What is plant protein?

In short: plant proteins are proteins derived from plant sources such as legumes and nuts, as opposed to animal protein sources like meat and dairy.

"What sets them apart is not just their origin, but their composition," registered dietician, Rimas Geiga, says.

"Plant proteins often come with a lower profile of essential amino acids compared to animal proteins, but they make up for this with their rich array of other nutrients. They are packed with fibre, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and often have lower levels of saturated fats and cholesterol. This makes them a holistic choice for those seeking a balanced diet."

Plan protein can be largely found in legumes, nuts, and whole grains. (Getty Images)
Plan protein can be largely found in legumes, nuts, and whole grains. (Getty Images)

Best sources of plant protein

According to meal delivery service Green Chef, some of the best sources of plant protein include:

  • Pumpkin seeds: 24.4g protein per 100g

  • Edamame beans: 11g of protein per 100g

  • Black rice: 9g protein per 100g

  • Black beans: 8.8g protein per 100g

  • Lentils: 8.1g protein per 100g

  • Butter beans: 8g per protein 100g

  • Chickpeas: 7.7g protein per 100g

Geiga says legumes should be your first port of call when looking at plant protein, as lentils, chickpeas and black beans are all packed with protein.

"Quinoa and amaranth are unique in the grain world due to their complete protein profile. Nuts like almonds and seeds like chia are also fantastic sources," he adds.

"To incorporate more plant proteins, I often recommend clients to start with simple swaps: a lentil curry instead of meat, or a quinoa salad as a side dish. Gradually incorporating these foods can lead to a significant increase in plant protein intake without overwhelming your palate or routine."

Impact of plant protein on gut health

Geiga says plant proteins are a “boon” for gut health as the fibre contained in these proteins are crucial for promoting a healthy gut biome.

"Fibre acts as a prebiotic, fostering the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut," he explains. "This, in turn, can enhance digestion, boost immune function, and even improve mood and mental health. Regular intake of plant proteins can lead to a more balanced gut flora, reducing issues like bloating, constipation, and inflammation."

Plant protein vs. animal protein

As with any dietary habit, the best approach to eating plant and animal protein is balance and moderation. If you are an omnivore, you can definitely continue to eat protein from animal sources, but maybe include a bit more plant protein in your weekly shop.

"The debate between plant and animal proteins centres around their nutritional profiles and impacts on health," Geiga explains. "Plant proteins, while slightly lower in certain essential amino acids, offer a broader spectrum of health benefits due to their fibre, vitamins, and mineral content. They're linked to lower risks of heart disease, obesity, and certain cancers.

"Animal proteins provide a more concentrated source of amino acids and are essential for muscle building and repair. However, they can also come with higher levels of saturated fat and cholesterol. My approach is balance: incorporating both but leaning towards plant proteins for their added health benefits and environmental sustainability."

Young happy woman eating different nuts (cashew, hazelnut, almond) in modern kitchen. Healthy food and Dieting concept. Loosing Weight
Women who eat more plant proteins are more likely to be healthier in old age. (Getty Images)

Plant protein will ‘profoundly’ affect health

Geiga says that increasing your plant protein intake will ‘profoundly affect’ your overall health.

"Plant proteins can aid in weight management, reduce the risk of chronic diseases, and support heart health. They also have a lower environmental footprint, making them a more sustainable choice," he explains.

"For clients looking to make a significant change in their health, I often recommend starting with increasing plant protein intake – it's a change that impacts not just their personal health but also the health of the planet. Plant proteins are more than just an alternative to animal proteins; they are a gateway to a more diverse, healthful, and sustainable diet. Understanding their benefits and learning how to incorporate them into your diet can have lasting impacts on your health and the environment."

Additional reporting by SWNS.

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