Plant Based Protein Vs. Animal Protein For Heart Health

February is heart health month and we’re digging in to explore topics that benefit the cardiovascular system.

One of the most popularly debated subjects among health experts is protein. How much does a person need? What are the best sources? How should protein be consumed? As a whole, these answers are highly individualized. Let’s dig a little deeper into the heart of the matter by looking into protein intake for heart health.

Protein for Heart Health

Protein is needed for every cell and enzyme in your body. It’s used in almost every function in your system. It helps you feel full, rebuilds and repairs body tissue, and maintains nitrogen balance in your body. The Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get a minimum of 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight per day. Protein requirements may be more for athletes, older adults, pregnant women, and for other various reasons. Vegans may also require more protein (1g/kg) because plant proteins are not always as digestible as isolated proteins or animal proteins. Since we easily get protein from grains, vegetables, beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, dairy, and meat, deficiency is almost nonexistent in the United States.

Proteins are made of chains of amino acids. We need all of these amino acids for various functions in the body. Some amino acids can be made by the body, while others are not. The amino acids that are not made by the body are called essential amino acids, and we must get them from our diet. There are nine essential amino acids including: histidine, isoleucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.

Animal proteins (dairy, meat, eggs) contain all amino acids and are thought of as complete proteins. All plant foods contain at least some or all amino acids. Plant based protein sources of complete proteins include buckwheat, soybeans (tofu, tempeh, edamame), pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, chia seeds, quinoa, mycoprotein (quorn), and seitan. Legumes tend to be lower in essential amino acid methionine, while other plant proteins are mostly low in essential amino acid lysine. When following a plant-based diet, the most important thing is to eat a variety of plant proteins throughout the day to get all essential amino acids. The popular concept of eating “complementary proteins” together (a.k.a. beans and rice) to get your daily requirement of protein is not necessary. No magic protein elixir is created when combining two plant protein sources. It’s just important to eat a variety of plant based proteins throughout the day.

Plant Based Protein and Heart Health

A 20-year study examining 80,000 women looked at composition of diet and coronary heart disease risk. Results showed that eating a low-carbohydrate diet high in plant sources of fat and protein resulted in a 30% lower risk of heart disease compared with women who ate a high-carbohydrate diet that was low in fat. Results also showed eating a low-carbohydrate diet high in animal fat and protein did not protect against heart disease.

Research has linked plant-based diets, that include only plant based protein sources, with lower risks of heart disease, obesity, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. A large Harvard study found that higher animal protein intake was associated with increased cardiovascular mortality, while a higher plant protein intake was associated with decreased cardiovascular mortality.

Findings from the Optimal Macronutrient Intake Trial for Heart Health showed a happy medium between animal protein and plant protein. In this trial, swapping some dietary carbohydrates for protein (at least half plant protein and half lean animal) resulted in lower blood pressure and lowered “bad” LDL cholesterol levels and improve estimated cardiovascular risk.

A 2015 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Public Health Nutrition showed a dose-response to red meat consumption and cardiovascular and cancer mortality. The more that was consumed, 1 to 4 servings a day, the greater the risk. On the other hand, according to an epidemiologic study in the International Journal of Cardiology, processed (i.e. sausage, deli meat), but not unprocessed (i.e. filet mignon) red meat consumption was associated with heart failure. Future research will also hopefully look at conventional red meat versus organic and grass-fed but the evidence is clear: The more meat you eat, the more you may put your heart at risk.

We tend to want to point the finger at one thing that may cause heart disease. Protein sources and diet composition are without a doubt sine of the many important lifestyle factors. There is an overwhelming amount of research supporting a plant-based or largely plant-based diet for heart health. Plant based protein sources not only include healthy fats but disease fighting phytonutrients, so it’s easy to see they reign supreme. As always, we need to look at the entire diet and the genetic risk factors of an individual to know what’s best for individual heart health.