Protein and Heart Disease: Meat vs Plant-Based

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Protein and Heart Disease

Does Meat Protein Increase Heart Disease Risk?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Is a plant-based diet better than eating meat when it comes to protein and heart disease?

protein and heart disease plant-basedThere are a multitude of studies showing the long-term health benefits of plant-based diets. Among the best of these studies are the Seventh-Day Adventist Studies. That’s because the Adventist church advocates a vegan diet but allows personal choice. This means Seventh-Day Adventists eat a more plant-based diet than most Americans. However, there is also significant variation in the diet of Adventists.

 

Not all Adventists are vegans. Significant numbers of Adventists choose lacto-ovo-vegetarian (dairy, eggs & vegetarian), pesco-vegetarian (fish & vegetarian), and semi-vegetarian (meat & vegetarian).

Because of this variation, Adventists provide a rich database for clinical studies. You can compare health outcomes of a vegetarian diet to the standard American diet by comparing Adventists to the non-Adventist population living in the same area. You can also use the Adventist population to compare the health outcomes of the various types of vegetarian diets.

I have described the Adventist Health Studies in detail in my new book, Slaying The Food Myths. Let me briefly summarize the results with an emphasis on heart disease risk:

  • Compared to the standard American Diet, vegetarian diets decrease cardiovascular deaths by 41% in men and 51% in women.
  • The reduction in cardiovascular death is greater for vegans than for lacto-ovo-vegetarians.
  • If we look at the average of multiple studies, the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer is less for vegans than for lacto-ovo-vegetarians, which is less than the risk for pesco-vegetarians, which is less than the risk for semi-vegetarians, which is much less than the risk for people consuming the standard American diet.

There are multiple reasons why vegetarian diets decrease the risk of heart disease compared to the standard American diet. These will be discussed below. The current study was designed to look at the proteins found in vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets and ask what effect these proteins had on heart disease.  This was a good study of protein and heart disease.

How Was The Study Done?

protein and heart disease heart healthThis study (M. Tharrey et al, International Journal of Epidemiology, 2018, 1-10 doi: 10.1093/ije/dyy030 ) utilized a database of 81,337 men and women over age 25 who were enrolled in the Adventist Health Study-2 between 2002 and 2007.

At the time of enrollment, a very detailed food frequency questionnaire was administered. The participants were divided into groups based on the most prevalent protein source in their diet as follows:

  • Grains: This group averaged 44% of their protein intake from grains.
  • Processed foods: This category included protein from cheese, eggs, and milk. However, it also included processed plant proteins and protein from cold breakfast cereals.
  • Meats: The largest protein contributors to this category were red meat, processed meat, and poultry. Fish made only a minor contribution.
  • LFV (Legumes, fruits & vegetables): Legumes were the biggest protein contributors in this category.
  • Nuts and seeds: This included peanuts, tree nuts and seeds.

The participants in the study were followed for an average of 9.4 years during which there were 2276 cardiovascular deaths. The study then asked what effect protein intake from each of these food groups had on cardiovascular risk.

 

Meat Protein and Heart Disease?

 

protein and heart disease meatsSome of the findings from this study were expected, but some were surprising. When studying protein and heart disease for example:

  • When they compared people getting the most protein from meat with those getting the least (24% versus 1% of their protein intake from meat), the risk of cardiovascular death was increased by 61%. This is consistent with several previous studies suggesting that meat, particularly red meat, increases the risk of heart disease.
  • When they compared people getting the most protein from nuts and seeds with those getting the least (18% versus 2%), the risk of cardiovascular death was decreased by 40%. Again, this is consistent with previous studies suggesting that nuts and seeds reduce the risk of heart disease.
  • They found no significant effect of protein intake from grains on cardiovascular death. This could be considered as surprising because whole grains are an excellent source of fiber, which reduces the risk of heart disease. However, the difference in protein intake between the groups getting the most protein from grains versus the least was relatively small (34% versus 19%). In addition, the study did not differentiate between whole grains and refined grains.
  • There was a slight, but non-significant, increased risk of cardiovascular death for people getting the highest amount of protein from processed foods. This is also a bit surprising. It may be because the survey included both meat-based and vegetarian processed foods in the processed foods classification, and there are many processed foods that are marketed specifically to vegetarians.
  • There was also no significant effect of protein from legumes, fruits and vegetables on cardiovascular death. This is also surprising and will be discussed below.

The authors concluded “Our results suggest that healthy choices can be advocated based on protein sources, specifically preferring diets low in meat intake and with a higher intake of plant proteins from nuts and seeds.”

What Does This Mean For You?

protein and heart disease nuts and seedsThis study does not fundamentally alter what we know about diet and heart disease risk. That is because this study focused solely on the protein and heart disease not on the foods and heart disease. The data were statistically corrected for every other beneficial and detrimental effect of those foods. For example:

  • The people in this study with the highest intake of processed foods were more likely to be overweight and physically inactive. They were also more likely to be smokers. These factors increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the data were statistically adjusted to remove these considerations from the analysis.
  • The people in this study with the highest intake of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables also had the highest intake of fiber, antioxidants, and B vitamins. These factors decrease the risk of heart disease. However, the data were statistically adjusted to remove these considerations from the analysis.

In short, processed foods are still probably bad for the heart, but that is not due to the protein component of processed foods. Similarly, whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables are still good for the heart, but it is not the protein component of these foods that conveys the heart-healthy benefits.

Where the study breaks new ground and leaves some unanswered questions is with the effect of meat, nuts, and seeds on heart disease risk. For example:

  • The American Heart Association has recently released a Presidential Advisory statement warning that the saturated fat in meats increases heart disease risk. However, the data in the present study were statistically adjusted to remove the effect of saturated fat from the analysis. Thus, this study suggests that the protein in red meat also contributes to heart disease risk. If this is confirmed by subsequent studies, it is an important advance. It might mean, for example, that grass-fed beef is no healthier than conventionally raised beef.

However, it is unclear why meat protein increases heart disease risk. One recent study has suggested that meat-based diets favor a population of gut bacteria that metabolize a compound called carnitine, also found in meat, into a metabolite that increases heart disease risk. However, this mechanism has not yet been confirmed.

[Note: The effects of saturated fats and carnitine on heart disease risk are covered in detail in my new book “Slaying the Food Myths.” In my book I carefully analyze the arguments of saturated fat proponents as well as saturated fat opponents.]

  • Conventional wisdom has attributed the heart health benefits of nuts and seeds to their omega-3 fatty acids. However, the data in this study were statistically adjusted to remove the effect of omega-3 fatty acids from the analysis. Thus, this study suggests that the protein in nuts and seeds decreases heart disease risk.

Once again, the mechanism of this effect is unclear. The authors suggest it might be due to higher levels of the amino acids glutamate and arginine in seed and nut protein. However, these two amino acids are abundant in a variety of plant-based proteins. Their presence in nut and seed proteins would not appear to be sufficient to confer a special heart health benefit.

In short, this is the first study of this kind and the mechanisms of the effects described are unclear. Thus, one cannot yet definitively claim that meat protein is bad for the heart and nut and seed proteins are good for the heart.

Whether it is the protein component of these foods that affects heart health is relatively unimportant. It does not change what we know about diet and heart health. As discussed in “Slaying The Food Myths,” multiple studies show that meat-based diets increase heart disease risk and primarily plant-based diets decrease heart disease risk. Multiple studies also show that nuts and seeds decrease heart disease risk.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the effect of the protein content of various foods on heart disease risk. The study reported:

  • Meat protein increased the risk of cardiovascular deaths by 61%.
  • Proteins from nuts and seeds decreased the risk of heart disease deaths by 40%.
  • Proteins from processed foods, grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables had no effect on cardiovascular deaths.

This study does not fundamentally alter what we know about diet and heart disease risk. That is because this study focused solely on the protein component of various foods rather than the foods themselves. The data were statistically corrected for every other beneficial and detrimental effect of those foods. Because of that:

  • Processed foods are still probably bad for the heart
  • Whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables are still good for the heart.
  • Meat, especially red meat, is probably bad for the heart, while nuts and seeds are good for the heart.

The major new information provided by this study is that:

  • The increased risk of heart disease associated with meats is not just due to their saturated fat content. Meat protein may also increase heart disease risk. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this is an important finding because it suggests that lean cuts of meat and grass-fed beef may not eliminate heart disease risk.
  • The decreased risk of heart disease associated with nuts and seeds is not just due to their omega-3 content. Nut and seed proteins may also decrease heart disease risk.

For more details, read the article above:

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (2)

  • Ruth Uhl

    |

    Question – does it appear that there is any difference if one is eating more wild-caught fish and organic chicken, as opposed to red meat?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Ruth,
      That is definitely a step in the right direction, especially the wild-caught fish. The other thing to consider is proportions. A small amount of meat in a primarily plant-based diet is likely to be healthier than a small amount of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains in a primarily meat-based diet.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure in Young, Healthy Adults?

Posted August 14, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

What Is The Omega-3 Index And Why Is It Important?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Do omega-3s lower blood pressure in healthy adults?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adultsThe literature on the potential health benefits of omega-3s is very confusing. That’s because a lot of bad studies have been published. Many of them never determined the omega-3 status of their subjects prior to omega-3 supplementation. Others relied on dietary recalls of fish consumption, which can be inaccurate.

Fortunately, a much more accurate measure of omega-3 status has been developed and validated in recent years. It’s called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA compared to 26 other fatty acids found in cellular membranes. Using modern technology, it can be determined from a single finger prick blood sample. It is a very accurate reflection of omega-3 intake relative to other fats in the diet over the past few months. More importantly, it is a measure of the omega-3 content of your cell membranes, which is a direct measure of your omega-3 nutritional status.

A recent extension of the Framingham Heart Study reported that participants with an Omega-3 Index >6.8% had a 39% lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those with an Omega-3 Index <4.2% (WS Harris et al, Journal of Clinical Lipidology, 12: 718-724, 2018 ). Although more work needs to be done, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or less is generally considered indicative of high cardiovascular risk, while 8% or better is considered indicative of low cardiovascular risk. For reference, the average American has an Omega-3 Index in the 4-5% range. In Japan, where fish consumption is much higher and cardiovascular risk much lower, the Omega-3 Index is in the 9-11% range.

Previous studies have suggested that omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure to a modest extent. Thus, it is not surprising that more recent studies have shown an inverse correlation between Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. However, those studies have been done with older populations, many of whom had already developed high blood pressure.

From a public health point of view, it is much more interesting to investigate whether it might be possible to prevent high blood pressure in older adults by optimizing omega-3 intake in a young, healthy population, most of whom had not yet developed high blood pressure. Unfortunately, there were no studies looking at that population. The current study was designed to fill that gap.

 

How Was The Study Done?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young healthy adultsThe current study (M.G. Filipovic et al, Journal of Hypertension, 36: 1548-1554, 2018 ) was based on data collected from 2036 healthy adults, aged 25-41, from Liechtenstein. They were participants in the GAPP (Genetic and Phenotypic Determinants of Blood Pressure) study. Participants were excluded from the study if they had been diagnosed with high blood pressure and were taking medication to lower their blood pressure. They were also excluded if they had heart disease, chronic kidney disease, other severe illnesses, obesity, sleep apnea, or daily use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications.

Blood samples were collected at the time of their enrollment in the study and frozen for subsequent determination of Omega-3 Index. Blood pressure was also measured at their time of enrollment in two different ways. The first was a standard blood pressure measurement in a doctor’s office.

For the second measurement they were given a wearable blood pressure monitor that recorded their blood pressure over 24 hours every 15 minutes during the day and every 30 minutes while they were sleeping. This is considered more accurate than a resting blood pressure measurement in a doctor’s office because it records the variation in blood pressure, while you are sleeping, while you are exercising, and while you go about your everyday activities.

 

Do Omega-3s Lower Blood Pressure In Young, Healthy Adults?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adults equipmentNone of the participants in the study had significantly elevated blood pressure. The mean systolic and diastolic office blood pressures were 120±13 and 78±9 respectively. The average Omega-3 Index in this population was 4.6%, which is similar to the average Omega-3 Index in the United States.

When they compared the group with the highest Omega-3 Index (average = 5.8%) with the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index (average = 4.6%):

  • The office measurement of systolic and diastolic blood pressure was decreased by 3.3% and 2.6% respectively
  • While those numbers appear small, the differences were highly significant.
  • The 24-hour blood pressure measurements showed a similar decrease.
  • Blood pressure measurements decreased linearly with increasing Omega-3 Index. [In studies of this kind, a linear dose-response is considered an internal validation of the differences observed between the group with the highest Omega-3 Index and the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index.]

The authors concluded: “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant, lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in normotensive, young and healthy individuals. Diets rich omega-3 fatty acids may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”

 

What Does This Mean For You?

omega-3s lower blood pressure young adults questionPerhaps I should first comment on the significance of the relatively small decrease in blood pressure observed in this study.

  • These were young adults, all of whom had normal or near normal blood pressure.
  • The difference in Omega-3 Index was rather small (5.8% to 4.6%). None of the participants in the study were at the 8% or above that is considered optimal.
  • Liechtenstein is a small country located between Switzerland and Spain. Fish consumption is low and omega-3 supplement consumption is rare.

Under these conditions, even a small, but statistically significant, decrease in blood pressure is remarkable.

We should think of this study as the start of the investigation of the relationship between omega-3 status and blood pressure. Its weakness is that it only shows an association between high Omega-3 Index and low blood pressure. It does not prove cause and effect.

Its strength is that it is consistent with many other studies showing omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure. Furthermore, it suggests that the effect of omega-3s on blood pressure may also be seen in young, healthy adults who have not yet developed high blood pressure.

Finally, the authors suggested that a diet rich in omega-3s might reduce the incidence of high blood pressure by slowing the age-related increase in blood pressure that most Americans experience. This idea is logical, but speculative at present.

However, the GAPP study is designed to provide the answer to that question. It is a long-term study with follow-up examinations scheduled every 3-5 years. It will be interesting to see whether the author’s prediction holds true, and a higher Omega-3 Index is associated with a slower increase in blood pressure as the participants age.

 

Why Is The Omega-3 Index Important?

 

The authors of this study said: “The Omega-3 Index is very robust to short-term intake of omega-3 fatty acids and reliably reflects an individual’s long-term omega-3 status and tissue omega-3 content. Therefore, the Omega-3 Index has the potential to become a cardiovascular risk factor as much as the HbA1c is for people with diabetes…” That is a bit of an overstatement. HbA1c is a measure of disease progression for diabetes because it is a direct measure of blood sugar control.

In contrast, Omega-3 Index is merely a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. However, if it is further validated by future studies, it is likely to be as important for predicting cardiovascular risk as are cholesterol levels and markers of inflammation.

However, to me the most important role of Omega-3 Index is in the design of future clinical studies. If anyone really wants to determine whether omega-3 supplementation reduces cardiovascular risk, high blood pressure, diabetes or any other health outcome they should:

  • Start with a population group with an Omega-3 Index in the deficient (4-5%) range.
  • Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids in a double blind, placebo-controlled manner.
  • Show that supplementation brought participants up to an optimal Omega-3 Index of 8% or greater.
  • Look at health outcomes such as heart attacks, cardiovascular deaths, hypertension, stroke, or depression.
  • Continue the study long enough for the beneficial effects of omega-3 supplementation to be measurable. For cardiovascular outcomes the American Heart Association has stated that at least two years are required to obtain meaningful results.

These are the kind of experiments that will be required to give definitive, reproducible results and resolve the confusion about the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids.

 

The Bottom Line

 

An accurate measure of omega-3 status has been developed and validated in recent years. It’s called the Omega-3 Index. Simply put, the Omega-3 Index is the percentage of EPA and DHA compared to 26 other fatty acids found in cellular membranes.

Although more work needs to be done, an Omega-3 Index of 4% or less is generally considered indicative of high cardiovascular risk while 8% or better is considered indicative of low cardiovascular risk.

Previous studies have shown an inverse correlation between Omega-3 Index and blood pressure. However, these studies have been done with older populations, many of whom had already developed high blood pressure.

From a public health point of view, it is much more interesting to investigate whether it might be possible to prevent high blood pressure in older adults by optimizing omega-3 intake in a young, healthy population, most of whom had not yet developed high blood pressure. Until now, there have been no studies looking at that population.

The study described in this article was designed to fill that gap. The participants in this study were ages 25-41, were healthy, and none of them had elevated blood pressure.

When the group with the highest Omega-3 Index (average = 5.8%) was compared with the group with the lowest Omega-3 Index (average = 4.6%):

  • Both systolic and diastolic blood pressure were decreased
  • Blood pressure measurements decreased linearly with increasing Omega-3 Index.

The authors concluded: “A higher Omega-3 Index is associated with statistically significant, clinically relevant, lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure in normotensive, young and healthy individuals. Diets rich omega-3 fatty acids may be a strategy for primary prevention of hypertension.”

Let me translate that last sentence into plain English for you. The authors were saying that optimizing omega-3 intake in young adults may slow the age-related increase in blood pressure and reduce the risk of them developing high blood pressure as they age. This may begin to answer the question “Do omega-3s lower blood pressure in young, healthy adults?”

Or even more simply put: Aging is inevitable. Becoming unhealthy is not.

For more details, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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