As the body ages, even the most active among us can get frail, losing bone density and muscle strength, leaving us vulnerable to the risk of bone fracture or imbalance-induced falls. Because frailty is linked with high risk of disease, researchers set out to find a connection between diet and frailty, and found that plant-based protein can protect against frailty, and reduce the indicators of frailty by up to 42 percent.

The study, which set out to evaluate the effect of diet composition,  and specifically the role of protein intake on frailty, looked at plant, animal, and dairy protein, in relation to frailty incidence in a large cohort of older women. The findings give new hope for maintaining healthy bones and strong muscles well into later life, and the key appears to be switching to plant-based foods as a source of clean protein now, to live healthier and longer later.

Published in the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia, and Muscle, the study found that replacing animal protein with plant-based protein is associated with a lower risk of frailty, especially among women over the age of 60. The study examined how a plant-based diet in your younger years (and as you age) could help retain muscle and bone strength well into old age.  It found that women with a higher intake of plant protein had a lower risk of developing frailty after adjustment for all relevant confounders

How to the Study Gathered Data

The study examined how different diets impact frailty over three decades. To properly analyze the correlation between frailty and protein intake, the researchers looked at dietary data from 85,000 women aged 60 and older who participated in the Nurse’s Health Study – and then looked for those treated fort symptoms of frailty. The review study compared type of protein intake with diet questionnaires over thirty years, from 1980 to 2010.

Frailty is defined as a common syndrome that occurs in older adults, connected to weak muscle strength, slowed walking, poor bone health, unintentional weight loss, and others. Previous research has signified that consumption is directly related to frailty syndrome, but before this study, no conclusion about diet composition had been reached. The researchers specifically observed the intake of proteins, including plants, animals, and dairy.

How the FRAIL Scale Works

The main sources of animal protein include poultry, fish, seafood, eggs, dairy, and processed and unprocessed meats. The plant proteins included cereals, pasta, nuts, bread, beans, and legumes.

They then graded the subjects on the 5-point FRAIL scale specifically:

  • Fatigue
  • Resistance
  • Ambulation
  • Illnesses
  • Loss of Weight

The five tenants of the scale were measured as:

1. Feeling frequent or chronic fatigue

2. Having low physical strength

3. Reduced aerobic capacity

4. Experiencing five or more chronic conditions

5.Unintentional weight loss of five percent or higher.

To assess frailty, the research team determined that those suffering from frailty syndrome must exhibit three out of five criteria.

The researchers found that women with higher percentages of plant protein consumption showed a reduced risk of frailty.

The study also noted that participants with higher levels of animal protein consumption showed significantly higher risks of frailty.

Plant-Based Protein Lowered Frailty Risk 42 Percent

The study identified more than 13,200 cases of frailty among the participants. Those with the highest plant-protein in their diets had the least frailty, In contrast, those with a higher intake of animal protein intake had a higher risk of frailty.

Within that sample, substituting plant protein for animal protein even 5 percent of the time had an effect of lowering the risk of frailty by up to 42 percent. The intake of total and dairy protein showed no significant association with frailty.

Even 5 Percent More Plant-Based Protein Is Protective

Substituting 5 percent of energy from plant protein intake at the expense of animal, dairy or non-dairy protein was associated with benefits, making it clear that even a modest shift from animal or dairy to plant-based proteins such as legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds and soy products can help reduce the risk of frailty.

The same reduction occurred when the researchers examined the relationship between different animal proteins. The study found that replacing dairy protein with non-dairy animal protein was linked with a 14 percent lower risk of frailty.

These findings indicate the higher risk factors with non-dairy animal protein including meat and eggs. Overall, the study determined that plant protein is beneficial to promoting body and immunity strength well into older age.

Staying Healthy Longer With Plant-Based Diet

Besides reducing the risk of frailty, a plant-based diet can offer significant health benefits that will last well into old age. One recent study found that a mostly plant-based diet can prolong life expectancy by 10 years – and even more!

The researchers defined two diets good for longevity in the study, noting, "An optimal diet had substantially higher intake than a typical diet of whole grains, legumes, fish, fruits, vegetables, and included a handful of nuts while reducing red and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages, and refined grains. A feasibility approach diet was a midpoint between an optimal and a typical Western diet." Both diets emphasized that partial substitutions still helped significantly reduce death risk.

The younger you start eating plant-based, the better. Another study found that a plant-centered diet from 18 to 30 years old could help lower the risk of heart disease decades later. Without having to go completely vegan, you could significantly lower heart disease risk factors by cutting out unhealthy animal products in your younger years.

Bottom Line: To Reduce Frailty After 60, Eat More Plant-Based Proteins

It is never too late to start eating healthier to improve your health. For strong healthy bones and muscles, focus on a plant-based diet and avoid meat, dairy and animal protein. Even swapping some of your animal protein for plant-based foods can provide benefits as you age and help prevent diseases like heart disease and cancer.
For more on how to stay healthy, check out The Beet’s seven best plant-based foods for bone health.

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