Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. It’s also one of the most preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The good news is you can lower your risk of cardiovascular disease by making healthy choices and getting regular exercise. What you put on your plate matters for heart health.
One macronutrient your body needs for many functions is protein. Contrary to popular belief, plant-based foods also contain protein too and some, like legumes, are an excellent source of muscle-building protein. One question people have is how eating plant-based protein versus animal-based protein affects the risk of developing cardiovascular disease. What does science say about this?
How Plant-Based and Animal-Based Protein Differs
Animal-based proteins come from meat, poultry, fish, and dairy products. Animal-based proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that your body needs for good health in sufficient quantities and are considered “complete.”
Most plant-based proteins are deficient in one or more essential amino acids. An exception is soy protein, which has all the essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Despite plant-based protein sources being deficient in essential amino acids, you can make up for this shortfall by eating various plant-based protein sources.
For example, whole grains are deficient in lysine, but you can make up for that by eating legumes, an excellent source of this amino acid. Legumes are low in methionine but whole grains have you covered as they supply sufficient methionine. Vegetarians and vegans can meet their protein needs by eating foods such as soy, beans, lentils, nuts, and seeds. Because these foods contain less protein than animal-based sources, you might have to eat more plant-based protein sources if you lead an active lifestyle and need extra protein.
Bioavailability of Plant-Based Protein
Plant-based protein sources have lower bioavailability than animal-based ones, meaning your body can’t absorb and use them more easily. However, soy protein has a bioavailability between 91 and 96%, making its bioavailability similar to some animal-based sources. Plus, you get fiber when you consume plant-based protein sources. Some studies link a diet higher in fiber with a reduction in cardiovascular risk. For example, fiber has beneficial effects on blood sugar, and blood lipids, and may reduce inflammation, which can damage the inner walls of arteries.
Is Plant-Based Protein More Heart Healthy?
There is some correlational evidence that plant-based sources of protein are linked with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. One study that questioned 80,000 women about their dietary habits for 26 years found that those who consumed more plant-based foods and dairy had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who ate red meat. Note that they did consume dairy, so they didn’t eat a strictly plant-based diet.
The study also showed that women who substituted red meat with plant-based protein or fish enjoyed a significant drop in cardiovascular risk. So, you don’t necessarily have to go entirely plant-based to reap benefits.
Not All Animal-Based Proteins Are Harmful to Heart Health
The type of animal-based protein you consume matters too. Poultry and fish don’t correlate with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease in the same way red meat does – and processed meat is linked most strongly with higher heart risks.
As the American Heart Association points out, meat is high in saturated fat and processed meat is packed with sodium, both of which play a role in heart and blood vessel health. So, if you avoid one type of meat, processed meat would be it.
Beyond saturated fat, red meat is high in iron. Some research links higher iron stores with a greater risk of heart attack and stroke. It’s difficult for your body to eliminate excess iron and most men and women over 50 don’t need large quantities of iron in their diet. At high levels, iron acts as a pro-oxidant and can cause damage to organs like the heart and liver.
The Bottom Line
There is evidence that consuming more plant-based protein sources and less animal-based protein could lower cardiovascular risk but the type of animal-based protein matters. Poultry, fish, and dairy don’t carry the same risks as red meat and processed meat. As research suggests, you can get heart health benefits by substituting plant-based protein for some of the red and processed meat you eat and gain benefits.
Here are some simple, heart-healthy substitutions:
- Add chickpeas to salads as a source of protein rather than meat
- Make your own veggie burgers using quinoa or black beans
- Substitute quinoa for ground beef when making tacos or burritos
- Add tofu or tempeh to stir-fries or salads
- Use chickpeas or black beans as an alternative to ground beef in tacos
- Grill a portobello mushroom on the grill instead of a burger
- Try tempeh as a meat substitute. It’s soy-based and has a similar texture to meat.
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to go completely plant-based to get heart health benefits. And remember, it’s not just the composition of the protein you eat. Eating a diet rich in ultra-processed food and consuming excess sugar may also boost the risk of cardiovascular disease through various mechanisms – including weight gain, insulin resistance, and changes to the gut microbiome. So, choose whole foods and less food that comes from packages – and add more plant-based sources of protein to your plate.
- Medscape.com website. “Switching Protein Sources May Reduce CHD Risk”.
- “The power of a plant-based diet for heart health – Mayo Clinic.” 09 Apr. 2019, mayoclinic.org/power-plant-based-diet-for-heart-health/art-20454743.
- “How does Plant-Forward (Plant-Based) Eating Benefit your Health?.” https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/how-does-plant-forward-eating-benefit-your-health.
- “Protein Bioavailability: Absorption Explained – Common Knowledge (CK ….” 08 Dec. 2020, https://www.cksociety.org/protein-bioavailability/.
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