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Are high-protein diets safe for your heart?

Paleo, keto, Atkins, Zone: High-protein diets tout many benefits, such as weight loss, satiety and the ability to enjoy favorite foods like burgers and cheese. But are high-protein meal plans safe for your heart?

“In general, diets that alter the recommended daily amounts of macronutrients—protein, fat and carbohydrates—are good for only a short period,” says Lena Beal, MS, RDN, LD, a therapeutic dietitian at Piedmont. “Their long-term use hasn’t been well-studied. And once you alter the physiology of your body with these diets, it changes how the body metabolizes nutrients.”

High-protein diets can be safe for heart health over a short period of time, but monitoring is essential.

“We can safely recommend low-calorie or low-carbohydrate diets for a six- to eight-week period,” she says. “If you have an underlying health condition or family history of serious disease, you need to get the OK from a medical professional before starting a diet.”

How do high-protein diets affect your heart?

“You need protein for development and tissue repair, but overdoing it can put your body in a state of ketosis,” says Beal.

Ketosis occurs when the body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to use as fuel, so it burns fat instead, creating ketones to use as fuel.

“But you don’t want to stay in this state of ketosis,” she says. “The kidneys may not be able to clear waste products effectively and you may experience bad breath, low appetite, nausea, fatigue and headaches.”

Many high-protein diets also allow for significant amounts of saturated fat. She cautions that high saturated fat intake can lead to:

  • Blocked arteries (atherosclerosis)

  • Increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol

  • Decreased HDL (“good”) cholesterol

  • Increased risk of heart disease

How to make high-protein diets heart-healthy

If you opt to follow a high-protein, high-fat meal plan, here are Beal’s tips to make your meals more heart-friendly.

Consume a variety of protein sources. “Diets that include mostly lean or plant-based proteins don’t carry the same risks for heart disease and cancer as diets high in saturated fat,” she says.

She recommends:

  • Eggs and/or egg whites

  • Low-fat dairy

  • Beans

  • Lentils

  • Lactose-free soy, rice or almond milk

  • Soy

  • Tofu

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Quinoa

  • Chicken

  • Turkey

  • Fish

  • Whey or plant-based protein powder

Eat red meat in moderation. Red meat includes beef, pork, veal, lamb and venison. When cooking with meat:

  • Opt for a lean cut, like a tenderloin.

  • Trim the visible fat when you’re finished cooking.

  • Use a healthy cooking method, like roasting, steaming or grilling.

“For disease prevention, we recommend that people eat red meat sparingly,” she says. “There are health risks associated with frequently eating red meat.”

However, she notes that red meat can be one of the best sources of heme iron and vitamin B12. If you lack heme iron, you may be at increased risk of anemia. And a B12 deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease. 

Fill up on fiber. For heart health, it’s important to eat plenty of fiber from sources like:

  • Vegetables

  • Fruits

  • Beans

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Whole grains

  • Fiber supplements

“Fiber is essential because it binds to excess cholesterol and helps eliminate it from the body,” says Beal. “It also slows the rate of digestion, stabilizes your blood sugar and keeps you feeling full for longer.”

Limit saturated fat. High saturated fat intake is associated with an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Saturated fat can be found in:

  • Red meat

  • Cheese

  • Butter

  • Poultry, particularly with skin

  • Cream

  • Lard

  • Full-fat dairy products

  • Bacon

  • Palm oil and palm kernel oil

  • Ice cream

  • Certain fried and commercial baked goods

Consume more healthy, unsaturated fats like:

  • Nuts

  • Seeds

  • Avocados

  • Olive oil

  • Plant seed oils like flaxseed, sunflower, grapeseed, canola, sunflower and soybean oils

  • Avocado oil

Temporarily track what you eat. Use a food app to track your intake for a few days, suggests Beal. This will help you see your macronutrient breakdown to ensure you’re getting adequate amounts.

Signs you’re eating too much protein

If you overeat protein, your body may have some adverse reactions, such as:

  • Constipation

  • Halitosis (bad breath)

  • Headaches

  • Nutritional deficiencies

You should also watch your “numbers,” including your weight, body mass index, waist circumference, blood pressure and cholesterol. Beal advises getting your numbers checked before starting a high-protein diet and following up with your physician after three months.

“Protein is good,” she says. “Adequate protein intake is important because it’s a building block of every human cell. We need it, especially as we age, to maintain muscle mass and prevent malnutrition. But we don’t need too much of it.”

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