High-protein diet may increase heart failure risk in middle-aged men

DALLAS — High-protein diets are touted for weight loss and management, but are they always safe? A longitudinal study presented by the American Heart Association (AHA) cautions that a diet high in certain animal proteins puts middle-aged men at higher risk for heart failure.

There is good news, however, for those who prefer the lean protein sources found in fish and eggs: these proteins are not linked to the elevated risk, researchers say.

The AHA estimates that one in five Americans 40 and older will at some point develop heart failure, meaning the heart is unable to pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Heart failure is incurable and can shorten life expectancy, so the goal is prevention through diet and lifestyle.

“As many people seem to take the health benefits of high-protein diets for granted, it is important to make clear the possible risks and benefits of these diets,” says study author Jyrki Virtanen, an adjunct professor of nutritional epidemiology at the University of Eastern Finland in Kuopio, in an AHA release. “Earlier studies had linked diets high in protein – especially from animal sources — with increased risks of Type 2 diabetes and even death.”

For the study, researchers collected information on 2,441 men ranging in age from 42 to 60 years of age. They placed the men into one of four groups on the basis of their daily protein intake and then followed their diet and health records over the next 22 years.

Overall, animal sources made up about 70 percent of protein consumption, while 27.7 percent of proteins were plant-based.

Over the course of the study, 334 of the participants developed heart failure. Researchers say there was a link between a diagnosis of heart failure and the consumption of a higher intake of protein from most sources, with the exception of fish and eggs.

Looking at the four groups of men, those who ate the most protein had the highest risk of heart failure. The risk was 33 percent higher for all forms of protein, but rose to 43 percent higher for animal sources and 49 percent higher for dairy sources. For plant proteins, the risk was just 17 percent higher.

The authors say these results indicate the need for additional long-term studies on the links between diet and heart failure.

“As this is one of the first studies reporting on the association between dietary protein and heart failure risk, more research is needed before we know whether moderating protein intake may be beneficial in the prevention of heart failure,” notes first study author Heli E.K. Virtanen, a Ph.D. student and researcher at the University of Eastern Finland. “Long-term interventions comparing diets with differential protein compositions and emphasizing differential protein sources would be important to reveal possible effects of protein intake on risk factors of heart failure. More research is also needed in other study populations.”

The AHA recommends a diet that includes a mixture of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish, beans, non-tropical vegetable oils and nuts. For better health, also limit red meats, sweets and sugary beverages.

Research results were published in Circulation: Heart Failure, an American Heart Association journal.