Plant-Based, High Protein Diet May Lower Risk of Heart Disease

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Eating more protein is associated with lower mortality risk according to a new study. Getty Images
  • A new study finds that eating a high protein diet reduces the risk of death from all causes when compared with one with lower levels.
  • High protein diets that are plant-based are also associated with reduced risk of heart disease.
  • Higher protein levels overall were beneficial to people’s diets.
  • The findings confirmed that high total protein intake is associated with lower risk of all-cause death when compared with people eating low protein diets.

High protein diets are associated with a lower risk of death from any cause, according to research published in the BMJ.

Researchers not only found that a high protein diet is associated with reduced risk of death from all causes, but that it’s plant-based protein that’s specifically associated with reduced risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, and stroke.

“These findings have important public health implications as intake of plant protein can be increased relatively easily by replacing animal protein and could have a large effect on longevity,” the researchers said in a statement.

Researchers at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences in Iran, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and Harvard Medical School reviewed the results of 32 studies reporting risk estimates for all-cause, cardiovascular, and cancer death in adults 19 years or older.

They assessed all of the studies for bias, which could have influenced their findings.

Researchers then used mathematical models to compare the effects of the highest categories of protein intake with the lowest, and this information was analyzed to evaluate the relationship between protein intake and death.

During a follow-up period of up to 32 years, there were more than 16,000 deaths from cardiovascular disease and more than 22,000 deaths from cancer among the 715,128 participants.

The findings confirmed that high total protein intake is associated with lower risk of all-cause death when compared with people eating low- protein diets.

Surprisingly, they also determined that there was no significant association between eating animal protein and risk of death from cardiovascular disease.

But neither was there any benefit.

However, the participants who ate an additional 3 percent of food containing plant proteins per day experienced a 5 percent lower risk for death from any cause.

“Plant-based eating patterns have been linked to reducing heart disease and hypertension,” Denice Taylor, RDN, LD, CDE, a registered dietitian with Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital in Arlington, Texas, told Healthline.

“The American Diabetes Association has studied large groups of people following high fiber, plant-based diets to see a reduction in blood glucose and 3-month A1C percent averages. A1C is a form of hemoglobin that is chemically linked to sugar,” she said.

According to the study authors, “The mechanisms through which plant proteins could affect human health are not well known.”

But they believe one reason why plant-based protein showed cardiovascular benefits, while meat protein did not, is a class of protein called insulin-like growth factors (IGFs).

Studies find that IGFs are associated with chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease, and even osteoporosis.

“Whereas consumption of animal protein was associated with increased concentrations of insulin-like growth factor, dietary intake of plant proteins was not associated with raised levels,” the study authors wrote. “Increased levels of insulin-like growth factor have been linked to an increased risk of age related diseases.”

The study also found that consumption of animal protein, regardless your body weight, was associated with high cholesterol levels, while “consumption of plant proteins was associated with low levels of plasma cholesterol.”

Brittney Bearden, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, a sports nutrition manager with Texas Health Sports Medicine, emphasizes that most plant foods are incomplete proteins, which means they’re missing one or more essential amino acids.

“So, pair complementary proteins together to form a complete protein that provides all essential amino acids,” Bearden said.

According to Bearden, pairing examples include:

  • rice and beans
  • hummus with pita bread
  • peanut butter on whole wheat bread

“Iron is absorbed better when paired with vitamin C,” she said. “You want to be creative and be wise on how you mix and match your different plant foods.”

Bearden points out that besides providing many good nutrients, plants also contain fiber.

“It promotes a healthy digestive system. It helps keep you feeling full,” she said about fiber.

A new study finds that eating a high protein diet reduces the risk of death from all causes when compared with one with lower levels.

While researchers found eating animal protein wasn’t associated with heart disease, study participants who ate plant-based protein experienced significantly reduced risk of the disease.

Experts say plant-based foods must be combined in a healthy manner to ensure we consume the complete proteins our bodies need.

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