We depend on the elegantly coordinated contractions of our heart to keep us alive. Your heart is a muscle that’s always in motion. Good thing, since its job is to deliver life-sustaining nutrients and oxygen to tissues. That’s why it’s important to keep your heart healthy! Unfortunately, heart disease is the number one cause of death in Western countries in both men and women. Contrary to popular belief, cardiovascular disease isn’t a “man’s disease.” In fact, the incidence of heart disease increases dramatically in women after menopause.
Is there a way to lower your risk even if you have a family history? Fortunately, scientists believe that lifestyle trumps genetics when it comes to heart disease risk. In support of this, a study carried out at Northwestern University revealed that lifestyle is more influential for the risk of developing heart disease than genetics. This study identified five lifestyle factors that lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. These include limiting alcohol intake to one drink a day or less, maintaining healthy body weight, not smoking, staying physically active, and eating a healthy diet.
But, what IS a healthy diet? Diet and lifestyle as cardiovascular risk factors have been the subject of much focus. At one time, the consensus was that dietary cholesterol and saturated fat were the primary dietary drivers of heart risk. However, recent research questions the role saturated fat and dietary cholesterol play in cardiovascular risk as the focus shifts more toward inflammation as a driving force behind heart attacks and heart disease. Fat isn’t the enemy. We need a certain amount of fat in our diet to supply essential fatty acids. In fact, monounsaturated fats, like those in olive oil and avocados, may actually be cardioprotective. On the other hand, replacing dietary fat with processed carbs and sugar would not be beneficial.
What about a High-Protein Diet? We know that protein is an essential dietary component, one that your body needs to build structural and functional proteins, including ones that allow your muscles to contract. Diets higher in protein have other benefits as well. When you consume more protein, you typically feel more satiated and that can help with weight control. Interestingly, some studies suggest that protein may actually be beneficial for heart health.
Is a High-Protein Diet Beneficial for Heart Health?
One factor that determines whether your heart is healthy is the health of your blood vessels. Your arteries are lined with a layer of tissue called the endothelium. The endothelial layer produces factors, particularly nitric oxide, that helps open up the vessels and increase blood flow. Poor endothelial function is linked with a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure.
Can dietary protein improve endothelial function and have a positive impact on cardiovascular disease risk? After studying the interaction of dietary protein intake on blood vessel stiffness and blood pressure in 2898 healthy females, researchers at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. found that subjects who consumed more of certain amino found in dietary protein had lower blood pressure and more flexible arteries.
Protein from both animal and protein sources was linked with heart-healthy benefits. A high-protein diet intake of animal protein was associated with lower levels of arterial stiffness while higher plant-protein consumption was linked with lower blood pressure. In fact, based on the results, researchers point out that the impact of consuming more protein was similar to the risk reduction you’d gain from quitting smoking.
Although this study is compelling, more research is needed to back up these findings. One weakness is the study used food-frequency questionnaires to determine how much protein the participants consumed. Food frequency questionnaires aren’t always reliable as people can’t always identify what they ate after the fact. But, we know that consuming more protein has other perks as well, and we tend to need more protein to stay healthy as we age. Plus, more protein on your plate leaves less room for starchy carbs that are less healthy from a metabolic standpoint.
Other Dietary Guidelines for Keeping Your Heart Healthy
Other ways to maximize heart health from a dietary standpoint? Consume more fruits and vegetables. Veggies and fruits contain a variety of components, including many that have yet to be characterized, that help lower blood pressure. Nuts are another dietary component that contains protein but also a number of other compounds that reduce inflammation, a driver of heart disease. In fact, studies show a diet high in nuts is linked with lower mortality due to heart disease as well as all-cause mortality.
Another tip? Eliminate sugar and refined carbohydrates as much as possible. These foods contribute to weight gain and weight gain fuels insulin resistance, a strong risk factor for cardiovascular disease. One study that followed participants for 15 years, found those who consumed 25% or more of their calories from sugar were at double the risk of dying from heart disease relative to those with a diet that contained 10% sugar or less. So, sugar isn’t heart-friendly fare.
Don’t Forget about Exercise!
When you exclude other habits that increase heart disease risk, like smoking, the factor, other than diet, that offers the most risk reduction is exercise. Aerobic exercise improves aerobic capacity, a factor strongly linked with mortality. Plus, exercise helps with weight control, improves insulin sensitivity, lowers blood pressure, and helps normalize blood lipids – all good things for your heart and blood vessels.
The Bottom Line
Are you getting enough protein in your diet? You don’t necessarily need to consume animal protein, you can still meet your body’s protein requirements by eating a variety of plant-based protein sources. And as this study and other studies suggest, plant protein is linked with lower blood pressure. So, regardless of the type of protein you eat, make sure you’re getting enough of it!
Nutritional Outlook. November 2015. “Role for Protein?”
Nutritional Outlook. November 2015. “Silver Linings”
Northwestern.edu. “Is Heart Disease Genetic Destiny or Lifestyle?”
Today’s Dietitian Vol. 17 No. 4 P. 16. April 2015.
Harvard Health Publishing. “Eating too much-added sugar increases the risk of dying with heart disease”
JAMA. 2007 Dec 5; 298(21): 2507–2516. doi: 10.1001/jama.298.21.2507.