What you eat as a kid can greatly impact how healthy you are as an adult, new research has shown.
Three new studies, from Tufts University, the University of Eastern Finland, and the University of Bristol, have illuminated the relationship between childhood nutrition and adult health outcomes.
These studies collectively underscore the significant benefits of consuming plant-forward foods, and avoiding animal products and processed foods, during younger years and their impact on health later in life.
Eating plant protein early life matters
It turns out that eating protein from plant sources is important and science says you should start early.
This study, based on data from more than 48,000 women, found that those who consumed more protein, particularly from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, bread, beans, legumes, and pasta, experienced a lower incidence of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, as well as cognitive and mental health issues as they aged.
“Consuming protein in midlife was linked to promoting good health in older adulthood,” Andres Ardisson Korat, a scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging and the lead author of the study, said in a statement. “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,” Korat said.
The research, which utilized data from the Nurses’ Health Study spanning from 1984 to 2016, demonstrated that women who relied more on plant-based protein sources were 46-percent more likely to maintain their health into old age, whereas those who consumed more animal protein were 6-percent less likely to do so.
Plant protein was associated with lower levels of LDL cholesterol, better blood pressure, and improved insulin sensitivity, particularly in relation to heart disease. In contrast, higher consumption of animal protein was linked to elevated levels of LDL cholesterol, blood pressure, and insulin-like growth factor, which has been associated with various cancers.
The study suggests that the health benefits of plant-based protein may be due to other components present in plant-based foods, such as dietary fiber, micronutrients, and polyphenols. However, the researchers noted that more diverse demographic groups need to be studied to confirm these findings.
Building heart health starts early
Complementing the findings from Tufts University, the University of Eastern Finland conducted the PANIC (Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children) study, which reveals a significant connection between diet quality and cardiovascular health markers in school-aged children.
The PANIC study found that a healthier diet, characterized by a higher intake of plant-based fats and fiber-rich grains, is linked to higher concentrations of beneficial polyunsaturated fatty acids in the bloodstream compared to less favorable monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids.
Furthermore, the study indicates that an improved overall diet quality, particularly with a higher intake of plant-based fats and a reduced consumption of sugary products, is associated with smaller VLDL particles in the bloodstream. This is a noteworthy discovery as VLDL particle size plays a significant role in cardiovascular health.
“Intriguingly, besides serum fatty acids, a healthier diet was also reflected in lower serum alanine, glycine, and histidine concentrations,” Doctoral Researcher Suvi Laamanen, of the University of Eastern Finland, said in a statement.
“Some studies in adults have linked higher serum alanine levels to an increased risk of coronary artery disease,” Laamanen said.
The PANIC study, initiated in 2007, is dedicated to exploring the health and well-being of children and adolescents. It involved 403 children aged six to eight years, with their food consumption meticulously assessed through four-day food records.
Additionally, concentrations of metabolites were measured from blood samples using NMR spectroscopy. Diet quality was evaluated using the Finnish Children Healthy Eating Index, which takes into account the consumption of essential items like vegetables, berries, fruit, plant-based fats, skimmed milk, fish, and sugary products.
Teens get clogged arteries with animal products
Conversely, another study conducted by researchers at the University of Bristol has shown that the kind of food you eat as a child can affect the health of your arteries when you become a teenager or young adult.
The study looked at data from a group of people whose diets were tracked when they were seven, 10, and 13 years old. Then, they checked the health of their arteries when they were 17 or 24 years old.
What they found was that following an unhealthy diet at age seven or 10 years old meant arteries tended to be stiffer at age 17. On the other hand, those who followed a Mediterranean-style diet—which emphasizes plant-based foods—at a young age had healthier arteries in their teen years.
“This highlights the importance of establishing healthy dietary habits early in life to protect against vascular damage,” the authors of the study wrote
The study also revealed that if a child ate foods less likely to cause inflammation at age 10, it had a positive effect on their artery health at 17.
Taken together, these studies serve as a reminder of the importance of building good dietary habits from a young age that focus on plant-based foods and avoid inflammatory agents such as dairy and processed meats.