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These Are The Best Protein Sources For Heart Health, Study Suggests

Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
By Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer
Eliza Sullivan is a food writer and SEO editor at mindbodygreen. She writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She studied journalism at Boston University.
Image by Nataša Mandić / Stocksy
July 7, 2021

Heart health is an important piece of our well-being puzzle—and one crucial aspect is diet. While many studies have assessed the best diets for supporting cardiovascular health, a new comprehensive review published in Cardiovascular Research today got down to the nitty-gritty of which foods, along with how often and how much, are best for heart health.

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The basics of diets for heart health.

According to the review, there's plenty of evidence that diets with a more plant-based focus are best for heart health—especially one diet in particular, the Mediterranean diet. This eating style prioritizes whole foods and limits certain animal products, which is consistent with the evidence the researchers found.

"We need to rediscover culinary traditions such as the Mediterranean diet which has delicious recipes using beans, whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables," says study author Gabriele Riccardi, M.D.

The researchers' findings suggest that decreasing salt and animal product consumption, and supplementing with more plant foods (specifically, as much as 400 grams of veggies per day), resulted in a lower risk of atherosclerosis, a type of vascular disease.

In even more detail, however, they found that both processed and unprocessed red meat were linked to an increased risk of heart disease, and therefore individuals should limit options such as beef, pork, and lamb to two servings (of 100 grams) per week. Whereas they found people should ideally only eat processed forms of meat (such as bacon, sausages, and salami) on occasion.

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The protein sources that are best for lowering heart disease risk.

Beyond the world of red meat, there is somewhat of a hierarchy of ideal protein sources for supporting heart health.

According to the research, legumes are the recommended red meat substitute in a heart-health-focused diet—up to four servings per week of 180 grams, specifically. In case you're not sure, legumes include beans, lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, soybeans, and peas. While peanuts may technically be a legume, they're better categorized with the other nuts—this research recommends around a handful (30 grams) a day but not as a primary protein source.

Recent evidence also supports fish as a substitute, though in more moderate amounts: two to four servings of 150 grams per week. The researchers do point out that there may be sustainability concerns with making fish a primary source of protein, but there are some more sustainable fish options that could be a great fit.

Poultry, in up to three servings of 100 grams per week, was found to be a relatively neutral source.

The gut health/heart health link and food.

There's one food group we haven't touched on yet: dairy. According to Riccardi, some types of dairy might not have the same potential negative impact as other animal-based products when it comes to heart health—thanks to a familiar gut health supporter.

"Small quantities of cheese (three servings of 50 grams per week) and regular yogurt consumption (200 grams per day) are even linked with a protective effect," he explains, "due to the fact that they are fermented."

While fermented foods are always recommended for gut health, the truth is our bodies' systems are all connected, and a lot of other health factors start with the gut. "We now understand that gut bacteria play a major role in influencing cardiovascular risk," Riccardi continues. "Fermented dairy products contain good bacteria which promote health."

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The takeaway.

So what does it all mean? Basically, that much of what we assume about heart-healthy diets is true: Lots of veggies, strategic proteins (vegan options, especially), and whole grains are the best—but there's room for animal products, too.

We have more good news: Snacks, too, can be heart-healthy, if you know what to reach for (hint: here's a list of our fave options).

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Eliza Sullivan
Eliza Sullivan
Food Writer

Eliza Sullivan is an SEO Editor at mindbodygreen, where she writes about food, recipes, and nutrition—among other things. She received a B.S. in journalism and B.A. in english literature with honors from Boston University, and she has previously written for Boston Magazine, TheTaste.ie, and SUITCASE magazine.