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Heart Health: Choosing Your Proteins Wisely, Does It Matter?

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the United States. Unlike some diseases that aren't completely understood, you can lower your risk for heart disease by making the right lifestyle choices. It should come as no surprise that diet, the food choices you make, contributes to heart disease risk. According to a study published in the journal Circulation, a simple way to lower your risk for heart disease is to change the type of protein you eat

Type of Protein and the Risk of Heart Disease

Researchers at the Brigham and Women's Hospital looked at the eating habits of over 80,000 middle-aged women as part of the Nurses' Health Study. These healthy women responded to diet questionnaire every four years over a twenty-six year period. The women were also closely monitored for heart disease.

The results of this study are revealing. The type of meat and protein these women ate over the twenty-six year study period significantly impacted their risk of heart disease. Women who ate nuts, fish, poultry, and low-fat dairy had a lower risk of heart disease than those who ate red meat.

In fact, when the participants exchanged a single serving of red meat with a serving of nuts each day, it lowered their risk of heart disease by thirty percent. That's significant! Substituting fish for a serving of red meat was linked with a 24% reduction in heart disease risk and poultry a 19% reduction.

Eat Chicken and Fish and Less Red Meat?

According to this study, women should eat chicken and fish, along with nuts and low-fat dairy products to keep their heart healthy and cut back on red meat. This is consistent with other studies showing a link between red meat consumption and a higher incidence of heart disease - particularly processed meat. This study suggests you don't have to give up meat entirely to keep your heart healthy. Instead cut back on red meat. Some studies also show people who eat a predominantly plant-based diet, with little or no meat, have a lower risk for heart disease. Tofu, tempeh, seitan, legumes and nuts are plant-based protein sources you can add to your diet. 

Some experts believe red meat increases the risk of heart disease because it's high in iron. A certain amount of iron is important for healthy red blood cells but too much iron can cause health problems. When you take in more iron than your body can deal with, it's stored in your heart and liver. At a certain level, it can interfere with the function of these organs.

Some studies also show high levels of iron are linked with inflammation.  In turn, inflammation increases the risk of heart disease, raises systolic blood pressure, and negatively affects blood lipids. The fat and sodium content of meat, especially processed meat, may be an issue too.

The Bottom Line

To lower your risk for heart disease, make chicken and fish your animal-based protein of choice, if you eat meat at all. Enjoy a handful of nuts daily too. Research links nut consumption with a reduced risk for heart disease and lower mortality overall. To keep your heart healthy, choose your proteins wisely.

References: website. "Switching Protein Sources May Reduce CHD Risk".

Diabetes Care  January 2007   vol. 30  no. 1  101-106.

J. Nutr. September 2008 vol. 138 no. 9 1746S-1751S

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