Plant-Based Protein vs. Animal-Based Protein: is One Better for Heart Health?

Everyone should be concerned about heart health. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. In fact, about 600,000 Americans die annually from heart disease. While there are many things you can do to lower your risk, such as exercising, not smoking, and controlling your blood pressure, diet also plays a key role in heart health.


Protein is an essential component of a diet. It helps us build and repair body tissue, including your muscles, after a workout. Nine of the 20 essential amino acids necessary for the human health that your body can’t make are only found in protein sources.


You can get protein from a multitude of sources. Meat and dairy might come to mind when you think of sources of protein but those aren’t the only protein sources. There’s a common misconception that plants contain little or no protein but that’s not the case. Plants are also a source of protein, but most plants are an incomplete protein source, meaning they lack one or more essential amino acids. You can overcome this shortcoming by eating a variety of plant-based protein sources. For example, you can get a full array of essential amino acids by eating a mixed array of beans, legumes, nuts, seeds, and vegetables. Plus, soy is one plant-based food that is a complete protein.


Still, animal-based proteins are the most common sources of protein in the American diet. These include red meat, poultry, eggs, fish, and dairy products. Plant-based proteins include beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.


Plant-Based vs. Animal-Based Protein and Cardiovascular Risk

One large study looked at the protein eating habits of more than 80,000 middle-aged women as part of a larger study. The women filled out questionnaires every four years about their eating habits. For 26 years, researchers looked at their eating habits and followed them for evidence of cardiovascular disease.


The results? Women who ate more plant-based sources of protein and dairy had a lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who ate red meat. The study found that simple substitutions, such as replacing a serving of red meat with a handful of nuts each day, led to a significant drop in cardiovascular risk by as much as 30 percent.


Although fish isn’t plant-based protein, the study also showed that switching a serving of red meat for fish reduced cardiovascular risk. According to Mayo Clinic, numerous studies show that plant-based protein may lower cardiovascular risk in the following ways:

Reduction in cholesterol

Reduction in bodyweight

Lowering blood pressure

Processed Meat is the Most Harmful


All meat may not carry the same risks. One study of 134,000 people showed that eating only 5 ounces of processed meat weekly was correlated with higher cardiovascular risks. In contrast, chicken and red meat didn’t carry the same heart risk. So, processed meat is the first type of meat to eliminate to lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.


Some studies show a link between consuming red meat and a higher risk of heart disease, but chicken and fish appear to not increase the risk. What makes red meat different? Besides being high in saturated fat, red meat contains lots of iron. You need a certain amount of iron in your diet to produce healthy red blood cells. However, iron can be a pro-oxidant, meaning it causes oxidative stress at higher levels. If you eat a diet heavy in red meat, you’re consuming more iron and in a form your body easily absorbs. If your iron stores rise too much, it can be harmful to your liver and heart.


Why Not Eat Both Animal and Plant-Based Protein?

You don’t have to consume a vegetarian or vegan diet to get benefits from plant-based protein. As studies point out, substituting plant-based protein for some animal-based protein you eat can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Plus, you get additional fiber from plant-based foods that you don’t get from animal foods. Here are some ways to add more plant-based protein to your diet:

Add plant-based protein to your favorite meals

Cook or order vegetarian once or twice a week

Swap meat for plant-based alternatives like beans and lentils. Rather than beef burgers, try bean or lentil burgers

Use hummus instead of mayonnaise

Eat a variety of different plants including beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, and high-protein vegetables

Add vegan protein powder to smoothies

Replace chips and other low-protein snacks with nuts

Try tempeh as a substitute for meat


It’s possible to get enough protein even on a vegan diet but you don’t have to go full-out vegan or vegetarian to get the heart health benefits plant-based protein offers. Experiment and you may discover you can be happy with less meat, and you’ll be doing something good for your heart.

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