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Protein and Heart: Why Plant Proteins May Be Better Than Animal Proteins

Written by Reshma Pathare on Sun, 11 December 2022 — Fact checked by Dr. Sintayehu Abebe

Key Highlights

  • The kinds of proteins you consume make a difference when you are suffering from a heart issue.
  • Animal-based protein sources are complete proteins, but some of them are also high in saturated fats and cholesterol, which are bad for the heart.
  • Plant-based protein sources have more unsaturated fats and much less cholesterol, and eating them in combination can give you all the protein you need.
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They contain healthy unsaturated fats and protein. They can be easily added to salads or you can eat them plain as a simple snack. Flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds are all great options.

Life, it is said, is created by proteins. Researchers have found that even 7,500 to 10,500 years ago, humans consumed protein-rich foods.

Proteins are called the ‘building blocks of life’ because they are present in all life forms on earth and are the most abundant molecules in our body.

Needless to say, protein & heart health share an intricate connection.

The correct protein intake our body requires depends on a number of factors, including age, weight, and activity level.

Types of protein

Proteins are made up of amino acids. Think of amino acids as the building blocks. There are 20 different amino acids that join together to make all types of protein. Some of these amino acids can’t be made by the body, so these are known as essential amino acids and our diet must provide these.

In a diet, protein sources are labelled according to how many of the essential amino acids they provide. A complete protein source is one that provides all of the essential amino acids.

Most people equate meat with protein, but meat is among the foods high in saturated fats, and consuming an excessive amount of meat, especially red meat, can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels.

Dairy is a good source of protein, but this, too, can have a higher than ideal level of saturated fats.

Nuts and legumes are among the best food sources of protein. Nuts are also good sources of Vitamin E and Vitamin C, and they have heart-healthy

monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids, instead of saturated fatty acids.

Plant-based protein sources include split peas, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, kidney beans and more.

In general, it’s recommended that 10-35% of your daily calories come from protein.

What are the best high-protein foods without cholesterol?

Plant-based proteins are usually not complete proteins, but it’s easy to get all the amino acids we need from plants while following a balanced diet.

In fact, it can be better for you because plant-based proteins are naturally cholesterol-free, lower in heart-harming saturated fats, and contain more healthful antioxidants and fiber than animal protein.

The British Heart Foundation notes that there’s growing evidence that replacing animal proteins with more plant-based proteins can benefit your health. These (mostly) vegetarian foods are high in protein and low in cholesterol.

If you’re at risk of a heart issue or already suffer from one, plant proteins would work better for you.

Plant-based, heart-healthy, low-cholesterol protein foods

When you consider increasing your protein intake for better health, look for the best mix of protein-rich foods, so that you can get all the benefits without risking weight gain and kidney problems.

Pulses:

High in protein, fiber, and iron, they’re part of the legume family and include all beans, peas, and lentils.

How much: One daily serving (1 large cup or medium bowl) is recommended.

Soya beans:

Soya beans are a complete protein, comparable in quality with animal protein, but are low in fat and contain fiber and iron.

How much: Eating 25 gm of soya protein a day, instead of meat, can help lower cholesterol levels. This is equivalent to 1 glass of soya milk, a pot of soya yogurt, or an 80gm serving of tofu.

Quinoa:

It’s a good protein food. Unlike cereals, quinoa has all of the essential amino acids you find in animal protein.

How to eat: It’s an easy substitute for rice and pasta.

Nuts:

They provide a good dose of protein in a handful (30 gm) and are packed with fiber.

How much:

A daily handful of unsalted nuts such as almond, cashew, pistachio, and peanuts can give you a significant amount of protein. They’re a good source of heart-healthy unsaturated fats as well. But don’t overdo the consumption of nuts, because all nuts are also high in calories.

Seeds:

They contain healthy unsaturated fats and protein. They can be easily added to salads or you can eat them plain as a simple snack. Flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and pumpkin seeds are all great options.

Good sources of protein

Type of foodProteins in grams
Soy milk (8oz)7
Edamame, fresh or frozen (½ cup)8
Edamame, dry roasted (1oz)13
Tofu (1oz)3
Lentils (½ cup)9
Lima beans (½ cup)7
Kidney, Black, Navy beans (½ cup)8
Refried beans (½ cup)6
Hummus (⅓ cup)7
Peanut butter (2tbsp)7
Nuts (1oz or ¼ cup)4-6
Sunflower seeds (1oz)5
Milk, skim or 1% fat (8oz)8
High-protein fat-free milk (8oz)13
Yogurt, fat-free, light (6oz)5
Greek yogurt, plain, non-fat, light (5oz)12-18
Cheese, hard, low-fat (1oz)7
Cottage cheese, Ricotta part skim (½ cup)14
Bread (1oz) slice3
Cereal (½ cup hot; ¾ cup cold)3
High-protein cereals (¾-1⅓ cup)7-15
Rice, Pasta (⅓ cup)3
Quinoa (⅓ cup)6

Source: PROTEIN CONTENT OF COMMON FOODS 

Proteins and heart health

A 2005 report published in the American Journal of Nutrition says: “Findings from epidemiologic studies show a significant relationship between increased protein intake and lower risk of hypertension and coronary heart disease.”

Research also shows that the thermic effects of foods (rate of increase in metabolism) are higher in protein-rich foods compared with foods heavy in carbohydrates or saturated fats because the body has no storage capacity for protein, so it needs to be metabolically processed immediately.

Moreover, as per studies, an increased level of dietary protein is associated with a decreased level of blood pressure. Higher protein intake lowers both systolic and diastolic blood pressure numbers.

Adverse effect of excessive protein

Extremely important as it is for the body, protein can have an adverse effect if consumed excessively.

When red meat and processed dairy items are consumed in quantities far above the recommended daily limit, they lead to weight gain and an alarming increase in blood urea, as your body struggles to process the high amounts of protein in those foods.

You’ll gain weight because any extra calorie from any source that the body can’t use up will be stored as body fat. Many of the high-protein foods are also full of saturated fats, which should be consumed only in small quantities.

Your kidneys will suffer because the excessively high intake of protein will create a huge amount of blood urea, which has to be flushed out of the body and puts pressure on the kidneys.

Right quantity of protein

The correct intake of protein for any individual depends on age, weight, activity levels, fitness goals, and internal health.

The Mayo Clinic recommends that 10% to 35% of your total daily calories should come from protein.

Protein intake for age groups

Here are the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), United States, for daily dietary allowance for protein for different age groups.

  • Children aged 1-3 years: 13 gm of protein
  • Children aged 4-8 years: 19 gm of protein
  • Children aged 9-13 years: 34 gm of protein
  • Girls aged 14-18 years: 46 gm of protein
  • Boys aged 14-18 years: 52 gm of protein
  • Women aged 19-70+ years: 46 gm of protein
  • Men aged 19-70+ years: 56 gm of protein
  • An average adult woman needs 2,000 calories and an average adult male needs 2,500 calories, if they want to maintain their current weight, then their daily protein requirements are 200-700 calories (for the woman) and 250-875 calories (for the man), respectively. A man or a woman looking to lose weight should consume about 500 calories less every day, and calculate their protein intake accordingly.

Protein provides 4 calories per gram, so the average woman should have 50-175 gm of protein daily and the average man should have 62-218gm of protein daily.

  • Another way to measure the correct protein intake is by body weight. The recommended minimum daily amount for an average sedentary adult is 0.8gm of protein per kilogram of body weight. For example, a person who weighs 165 pounds, or 75kg, should consume 60gm of protein per day.
  • A person who exercises regularly will need more protein. It’s recommended that such a person should take 1.1-1.5gm of protein per kilogram of body weight. A person doing strenuous workouts like hard cycling or weight-lifting needs 1.2-1.7gm of protein per kilogram of body weight.
  • Above the age of 50, when everyone begins to lose muscle mass, a slight increase in protein intake is required. This can go up to 1-1.2gm of protein per kilogram of body weight.
  • Anyone who’s consuming more than 2 gm of protein per kilogram of body weight is consuming too much protein. Unless one is a pro athlete with a special diet designed by a nutritionist, such a high level of protein in the body can cause severe health problems.

How to optimize protein metabolism

When you eat protein is as important as what and how you eat.

There’s a right time for maximizing your total daily intake of protein in order to best utilize your body’s day-night clock and metabolic rate. That time depends, among other things, on what you do during the day and how active you are.

For people with a moderately active lifestyle

A 2021 study from Waseda University in Japan decided to investigate ‘Chrononutrition’ — having the right amount of protein at the right time of the day for optimal benefits.

Having protein at breakfast appears to work best to increase muscle size and function. It’s optimal to eat more protein early in the day, at breakfast, an early snack, or for early lunch.

Japanese researchers observe that, in general, protein intake at breakfast averages about 15 gm, which is less than what we consume at dinner, which is roughly 28gm. The findings strongly support changing this norm.

For people who work out seriously

For those who work out daily, the American College of Sports Medicine suggests that there are several benefits to pre-exercise protein supplementation.

The most scientifically supported and significant benefits of consuming protein prior to exercise may be improved recovery and hypertrophy, because of improved amino acid delivery.

Protein supplementation after exercise may have an even more profound impact on skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Studies have demonstrated that protein ingestion following intense resistance training stimulates muscle protein synthesis for up to 3 hours. In contrast, failing to eat after exercise may limit protein synthesis and, therefore, limit potential progress in lean muscle tissue development.

Are protein powders good for health?

According to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, powdered protein can come from a variety of sources, including eggs, milk (e.g. casein, whey), and plants (e.g. soybeans, peas, hemp).

Some protein powders contain protein from multiple sources. For instance, a vegan option might include protein derived from peas, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and alfalfa. Protein powders can often contain non-protein ingredients, including vitamins and minerals, thickeners, added sugars, non-caloric sweeteners, and artificial flavouring.

If you choose to have a protein powder, it’s very important to read the nutrition and ingredient labels beforehand.

Conclusion

The power of protein in improving heart health is undeniable. But the intake has to be in the right amount and from the right sources, or else there’ll be more harm than good.

Consider all the relevant factors such as age, weight, activity level etc, measure your protein intake through the day, and also eat the largest share of your daily protein quota at the right time of the day.

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Reshma Pathare

Reshma Kulkarni-Pathare has been a self-employed media professional since 1999. Starting off as a Freelance Journalist for Times of India Thane Plus, Reshma went onto write for more than 45 national and international publications including Times of India, New Woman, Femina, Indian Express, The Hindu, BBC Good Homes and many more. While her forte has been lifestyle writing, she is equally proficient in writing health articles. Her health articles have been published in Health International (Dubai), New Woman, Femina, and Mother & Baby.

Apart from being a journalist, Reshma also works as a copy-editor for self-publishing houses and academic journals.

She is an award-winning bi-lingual translator with more than 12 books published in her name.

She has been a Visiting Faculty Member for post-graduate department of mass media at MET College (Mumbai) and Welingkar WeSchool (Mumbai).

She has worked as a Consumer Marketing Insights Researcher for global organizations like CEB Iconoculture (USA) and Gartner (USA).

Consolidating her multifarious skills in the media, in 2021, Reshma launched her own boutique media agency called Talking Turkey Communications, which specializes in content writing, editing, and translation.

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