You’ve heard that fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans are good for you. But apparently you can also add bread, pasta, and mashed potatoes, as well as baked goods and even pizza, to that list.
That’s what a new medical study led by researchers at Tufts University reveals, due to be published this week in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The study is based on an analysis of 48,000 women over 32 years.
According to the researchers, those whose diet included a lot of plant protein were 46% more likely to remain healthy in their later years than those who didn’t consume any. This meant they were more likely to avoid illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, as well as declines in their cognitive and mental health.
The same is not true for those who eat a lot of animal-based proteins, such as meat, fish and cheese.
The main sources of plant protein cited in the study included bread, vegetables, fruit, mashed potatoes, nuts, beans, peanut butter, pasta and even pizza, cereals and bakery products.
“Protein consumption in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adults,” said Andres Ardisson Korat, lead author of the study and a researcher at the USDA Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on the aging, in a press release. “We also found that the source of protein is important. Getting the majority of your protein from plant sources in midlife, along with a small amount of animal protein, appears to be conducive to good health and survival into old age.
But… pizza? Pastries ? Reached by telephone, Ardisson Korat said the results should not be misinterpreted. Bread, pizza and baked goods are on the list because they are major parts of the American diet and because they contain gluten, a plant-based protein. “That doesn’t mean everything on (the list) is healthy, but (those items) ended up lumped into the plant protein group,” he said.
In other words, it’s not so much that eating a lot of pizza is necessarily good for you, but that if you eat pizza, like many of us, the plant proteins it contains are good for you .
The research was based on the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term observational study of female healthcare professionals. Researchers studied a cohort of women from 1984 to 2016. Subjects were aged 38 to 59 at the start of the study and were between 70 and 91, if still alive, at the end.
The researchers looked at those who remained healthy and those who didn’t, then compared their diets. Study participants completed surveys every four years detailing their food consumption.
The study has obvious limitations: it is observational and relies on self-reported nutritional data. And the overwhelming majority of study subjects were white women, raising the question of whether the findings can be applied to people of other ethnic backgrounds or to men.
The results are also relative. It may be better to eat bread and even pizza than, say, double bacon cheeseburgers, but that doesn’t mean you’re better off eating bread and pizza than eating beans, salads, etc. and fruit.
This also doesn’t mean that eating more of these foods is better than simply eating less of them overall. Other studies have shown that calorie restriction – not eating too much – is probably good for your health, including those from the National Institutes of Health and Columbia University.
Science, of course, is a continuous process of investigation and testing. Another study recently argued that vegans, vegetarians, and pescatarians fared much better with COVID than omnivores, but this claim has already received a strong rebuttal.
But the latest findings are happy news for those of us who like thin-crust pizzas made with whole grains, small amounts of cheese and lots of fresh ingredients. They’re not as good for those who crave a giant pizza covered in processed meats. Common sense, as usual, remains useful. While a slice of pizza may be healthier than a cheeseburger, a healthy salad is probably even better.