While all of the macronutrients receive plenty of attention (good or bad) on their own, there’s a particular emphasis on getting enough protein. Just look at the headlines that circulate and the nutrition topics that dominate the conversations of your friend circles. One of the reasons protein has been garnering attention in research lately is because of its impact on longevity. Let’s take a look at the relationship between protein and life expectancy, including how much you need and where to get it in your diet.
The Importance of Protein & Longevity
Protein is important for supporting muscle maintenance, immune function, and various metabolic processes. Interestingly, research shows that adequate protein intake is also an important factor in determining how long you live.
A 2014 study funded in part by NIH’s National Institute on Aging found that a high-protein diet was associated with reduced cancer and overall mortality in people over 65. For those younger than 65, these beneficial health effects were seen with a lower protein intake.
More specifically, adults aged 50-65 years who reported a high protein intake had a 75% increase in overall mortality. They were also four times as likely to die from cancer within 18 years compared to those who consumed a low-protein diet.
While this particular study didn’t show a difference between the type of protein consumed, newer research does. One 2020 systematic review and meta-analysis found that a higher total protein intake was associated with a lower all-cause mortality risk. But more interestingly, plant protein intake was more protective against death than animal-derived protein.
Another large 2020 prospective cohort study came to the same conclusion. The authors found that even just replacing 3% of total daily calories from animal protein with plant protein had a positive impact on the risk of death.
What does this mean? While more research is needed, it appears that meeting your protein needs, but not consuming an excessive amount, is a good goal for overall health and disease risk. However, older adults over age 65 years may benefit from a higher protein diet. Wherever you can reduce your intake of animal protein, replacing it with plant protein, may be even better for longevity.
How Much Protein Should You Eat Per Day?
Despite the attention placed on protein consumption, true protein deficiency is incredibly rare as long as you’re eating adequate calories. Most of us regularly consume more than enough protein. But how much is enough?
Daily protein needs vary depending on factors like age, sex, health status, and activity level. The widely accepted guideline for protein requirements is 0.8 grams per kilogram of ideal body weight for the average healthy adult, which comes from the National Academy of Medicine. Ideal body weight is calculated using the following equations:
- For women: ideal body weight (in kilograms) = 49kg + 1.7kg for each inch over 5 feet
- For men: ideal body weight (in kilograms) = 52kg + 1.9kg for each inch over 5 feet
If you’re particularly active or would consider yourself an athlete, your protein needs increase to 1.4-2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition.
For example, if you’re active and weigh 140 pounds (64 kg), a protein requirement of 1.5 grams per kg translates to a daily goal of approximately 95 grams.
Top Tips to Add More Protein to Your Diet
Incorporating a variety of healthy protein foods can help support your overall wellness. Try to include a healthy protein source in your meals and snacks so it’s evenly dispersed throughout the day. Some good sources of protein include:
- Whole grains, especially quinoa, buckwheat, barley, or farro
- Cottage cheese
- Greek yogurt
- Fatty fish, like salmon, tuna, and mackerel
- Eggs or vegan egg alternatives made with mung beans
- Nuts, like cashews, almonds, and cashews
- Seeds, like sunflower, pumpkin, hemp, chia, and flax
- Legumes, like lentils, beans, and peas
- Soy foods, like tofu, tempeh, and edamame
Protein, Health, and Longevity
Protein plays a vital role in supporting muscle maintenance, immune function, and various metabolic processes. Getting enough protein as part of a healthy overall diet pattern is also important for longevity. Research suggests that replacing at least some of your animal proteins with plant proteins — like legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains — can reduce your overall risk of death from all causes and cardiovascular disease. Consider how you can incorporate a source of protein into your meals and snacks to meet your needs and support your longevity.