High-Protein Diets May Benefit Heart Health, But Carbs Are Still Vital

A nutritionally balanced diet remains the best approach for overall health, but a high-protein diet may be okay, especially if weight loss is your goal.

protein diet

Grilling chicken, fish, or lean meats can be a healthy way to build more protein into your diet.

© Loganban | Dreamstime.com

High-protein diets have been a popular weight-loss trend for a while now. Plenty of people have boosted their protein intake, lowered their carbohydrate consumption, and watched the pounds disappear.

But is a high-protein diet right for those who are older and who have heart disease or related risk factors? Experts say it is, but many are recommending that if it’s combined with low-carb intake, you should get input and supervision from your healthcare provider and a registered dietitian. Irregular heartbeats, gout, and dehydration can result from a diet high in protein and low in carbs. Your physician and nutritionist may recommend certain vitamins and minerals to supplement your diet, and may want to monitor your hydration level via blood tests.

How Much Protein Do You Need?

Your ideal daily protein intake depends on your gender, height, and weight along with any chronic diseases you may have. Recommended daily allowance/adequate intake of protein: is 56 grams (g) for men and 46g for women. Protein should make up between 10 and 35 percent of your total calories. Some high-protein/low-carb diets typically make 30 to 35 percent.

Beefing up your protein intake will often mean excess calories and the danger of weight gain, and being obese increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Such high-fat protein sources as fried chicken, beef, pork, and lamb can contribute to increased cholesterol and increased inflammation, conditions that also increase risk of heart disease.

Controlling Carbs

Consuming too many carbohydrates can also lead to weight gain and the health risks of being overweight. Controlling weight is a key managing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes as well as heart health. So getting the right types of carbs—your body’s primary source of energy—is important.

Refined grains/starches (white bread, rice, pasta, crackers, chips, pretzels) and simple sugars (white sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup) are pro-inflammatory, and can raise triglyceride levels. Whole-grain starches (whole wheat, rye, barley, oatmeal), whole fruit, vegetables, and legumes are more nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates that provide fiber, vitamins, minerals and have anti-inflammatory benefits. They also help manage blood glucose and energy levels.

If you’re light on carbs, fatigue can set in. Experts recommend you get at least 125 grams of carbs per day.

Healthy Protein Options

For many older adults, consuming too little protein is a problem. If you simply eat less than you once did or you don’t cook for yourself, protein intake may suffer. If you want to add a little or a lot of protein to your diet, choose such convenient protein sources as canned no-salt-added beans (black beans or pinto beans, for example, or chickpeas), cans or pouches of tuna or salmon, fat-free Greek yogurt, natural peanut/almond butter, low-fat cottage cheese, low-fat cheese, fat-free or low-fat milk, eggs, or protein shakes.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

WATCH THE FAT INTAKE IF YOU GO WITH A HIGH-PROTEIN DIET

While boosting your protein intake may help lead to weight loss and stronger muscles, it is also raising the risk of increasing your fat consumption, too. What exactly are the dangers of getting too much fat in your diet? Weight gain, of course, is the most obvious. Fat is more calorie-dense than carbohydrates and protein. There are nine calories per gram of fat vs. four calories per gram of carbs and protein. So the more fat you eat, the more likely it is you’ll gain weight.

Another danger in a high-protein diet: getting the wrong type of fat. Saturated fat raises bad cholesterol levels and increases inflammation, while trans fat will increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol. Read ingredient labels and limit or completely avoid foods with saturated fat and trans fat. Instead, go for mono- and polyunsaturated fats, which include more heart-protective benefits. You’ll want plant-based fats (olive oil, olives, nuts, seeds, avocados) and omega-3 fats from fish, while decreasing intake of animal fat (high-fat beef, pork, cheese, cream).

  • Extra virgin olive oil also has been shown to reduce cardiovascular (CVD) risk markers and CVD morbidity and mortality.
  • When you replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat (soybean oil, corn oil, walnuts, sunflower seeds, ground flaxseed, fish), you can significantly lower total and LDL cholesterol.
  • Nuts are associated with improved blood sugar control, lower blood pressure, and lower LDL cholesterol.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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