Women's Health: Impact of Diet on Chronic Diseases

Feb 29, 2024
By Dr. Sean M. Wells, PT, DPT, OCS, ATC/L, CSCS, CNPT, Cert-DN

In the intricate tapestry of women's health, diet plays a pivotal role, influencing not just physical well-being but also the prevention of chronic diseases. As the saying goes, "You are what you eat," and for women, this adage holds profound significance particularly in midlife. We know protein intake plays an important role in maintaining the health status of older adults. However, few studies examine midlife protein intake in relation to healthy aging until now. Let's look at a recent study and outline how midlife protein consumption patterns can affect women's health and the prevention of chronic diseases.

The Study

The new study from he American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examines middle-aged women in the Nurses Health Study cohort. The researchers examined thousands of surveys collected from the women every four years and looked at how frequently people ate certain food types. The researchers focused on dietary protein intake and its effect on aging and disease development. The researchers then compared the diets of women who did not develop certain chronic diseases, like 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.

In short, it appears that a plant-forward diet in middle life may help women avoid chronic health conditions like heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. The actual mechanism of why swapping plant protein remains to be seen, but a few theories exist. First, meat is very energy dense and when consumed regularly it can promote weight gain. We know that excessive weight gain can promote chronic diseases. Second, research looking at amino acids has begun to show some implications of lysine and sulfur based amino acids as possibly accelerating aging. As aging is accelerated conditions like cancer can also be unregulated. Third, we know that excessive meat consumption can contribute to other factors to our bodies like saturated fats (e.g. promotes heart diseases), toxins (e.g. lead in chicken), hemi iron (e.g. a form of iron in red meat which promotes oxidation), and gut biome changes (e.g. biome shifts associated with chronic diseases).

Impact for Physical Therapists

How does this have implications for physical therapists? Well, a long standing myth is that women must "get their protein," particularly as they age and around menopause. While everyone's body responds differently to various diet inputs, the gross over-generalization that obtaining protein equates to animal meat needs to be debunked. Many Blue Zone societies, those that have long-lived individuals and amazing qualities of life, tend to focus their diets on Mediterranean and plant-based style diets. Doctors of Physical Therapy (DPT) can easily talk with the clients about swapping meat for lentils, beans, or tofu. Does this have to be everyday and every meal? No! For those not used to eating beans or lentils starting low and slow can be a good way to adjust the gut and engrave the pattern of food swapping. The notion of meatless Monday or aiming to have two of three meals completely plant-based each day can be good starting points for some patients, particularly those that are used to having meat or animal products with every meal and snack. 

As women navigate the complexities of their health journey, the role of diet cannot be overstated. From healthier aging to chronic disease prevention, the foods we consume wield a profound influence. By embracing a diverse, plant-rich diet and adopting healthy eating habits, women can fortify their bodies against the challenges of life and nurture a foundation of lasting well-being. Remember, by educating our clients on the impact of food and their health, we can impact women's quality of life for many years to come.

If you like what you see here then know there is more in our 3 board-approved continuing education courses on Nutrition specific for Physical Therapists. Enroll today in our new bundled course offering and save 20%, a value of $60!

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Women's Health Continuing Education, Nutritional Strategies for Women, Integrative Physical Therapy in Women's Health, Aging and Nutrition, Chronic Disease Prevention in Women, Bridging Nutrition and Physical Therapy for Women, Lifespan Approach to Women's Health Education, Pelvic Health and Physical Therapy for Women, Evidence-Based Practices in Women's Health

Photo by Yaroslav Shuraev: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-in-black-tank-top-eating-food-8844382/

Disclaimer: The above article is written as an opinion piece and does not convey specific legal, medical, and/or practice act advice.  

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