Home » Cardiologist warns: Too much protein can cause ‘real damage’ to your arteries

Cardiologist warns: Too much protein can cause ‘real damage’ to your arteries

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Cardiologist warns: Too much protein can cause ‘real damage’ to your arteries

Along with carbohydrates and fat, proteins are one of the main nutrients that we need to consume from our diet in order to supply our body with the energy it needs. We need energy from proteins, especially to build muscle.

However, in western countries such as the USA, people consume on average significantly more protein than the WHO recommended daily intake of eleven percent of total calories. The protein is predominantly of animal origin. Many food manufacturers even advertise products rich in protein, promising a healthier diet and shedding pounds.

But too much protein can also harm our bodies. A 2020 study suggested that excessive protein consumption may lead to atherosclerosis. In this condition, the blood vessels thicken and stiffen, making blood flow more difficult. A common consequence of excessive protein intake is cardiovascular diseases. However, the mechanism behind this undesirable effect of proteins has hardly been researched so far.

Too much protein consumption can lead to cardiovascular disease – scientists are researching the cause

A team led by Xiangyu Zhang from the University of Pittsburgh has now investigated this in various tests. To do this, the biologists and biomedical scientists first carried out two experiments with a total of 23 overweight but healthy test subjects who consumed different amounts of protein. In the first experiment, 14 test subjects each received a protein-rich shake with 500 kilocalories, 50 percent of which came from protein, after a twelve-hour fast, and on another day a second shake with the same amount of calories, but only a very low protein content of ten calories percent.

In the second experiment, nine test subjects each received two meals of 450 kilocalories each, with one meal containing 16 grams of protein (15 percent of the calories) and the second 25 grams or a protein content of 22 percent. In both experiments, the researchers took blood samples from the test subjects before and one to three hours after meals or shakes. From this, they isolated the immune cells and determined the amount and composition of amino acids in the blood – the molecules from which all proteins are made.

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Protein component leucine influences cells that are involved in calcification of blood vessels

Zhang and his colleagues found that the test subjects had significantly more amino acids in their blood after the high-protein shakes and meals than after the low-protein shakes and meals. In particular, the concentration of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, valine, methionine, threonine, serine and arginine was significantly increased. From a protein amount of 25 grams or 22 calorie percent per meal, the content of certain amino acids in the blood increased.

Leucine is found in large quantities in animal proteins such as meat, eggs and milk. It is also known from previous studies that this amino acid influences the so-called monocytes and macrophages – cells of the immune system that are involved in the formation of plaque in the blood vessels in cases of arteriosclerosis. Based on their experiments, Zhang’s biologists therefore suspected that a meal with excessive protein content and high leucine content could disrupt the immune system and thus trigger arteriosclerosis.

Leucine disrupts immune cells, whereupon cell waste is deposited on the vessel walls

To test these assumptions, Zhang and his colleagues then carried out further experiments on human and mouse macrophage cell cultures as well as on living mice. The biomedical scientists found that mice with a diet containing more than 22 percent of calories from proteins also had increased levels of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, valine and threonine in their blood. This confirmed the findings from the experiments with humans and further narrowed the circle of suspects.

In addition, the experiments showed that leucine influenced the macrophages of the immune system significantly more than the other previously identified amino acids. According to the tests, leucine can activate the mTOR gene switch in immune cells, which regulates many cell functions. The amino acid disrupted the immune cells so that they could no longer fulfill their natural function – the disposal of defective cell components in the blood – as usual. In the long term, the cell waste would be deposited on the vessel walls and lead to arteriosclerosis, as the researchers report.

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“Increasing protein intake in the pursuit of more muscle is not a panacea.”

In another follow-up experiment, the test animals received a diet with normal protein but an increased leucine content. This led to visible arteriosclerosis in the mice after just eight weeks. This confirms the belief that a high-protein diet damages blood vessels and can cause cardiovascular disease, and makes it clear that the protein component leucine is actually behind it, according to the scientists.

“Our study shows that increasing protein intake in the pursuit of better metabolic health and more muscle is not a panacea. “You could be doing real damage to your arteries,” warns senior author Babak Razani of the University of Pittsburgh, adding: “It’s important to look at the diet as a whole and suggest balanced meals that don’t inadvertently worsen cardiovascular disease, especially in… People with an existing risk of heart and vascular diseases.”

Plant proteins could be healthier than animal proteins

However, further research is needed to understand the advantages and disadvantages of a high-protein diet more precisely and to weigh them up against each other. They would then also have to clarify where exactly the threshold for excessive and therefore harmful protein consumption lies. According to the tests, this value is between 15 and 22 calorie percent – but it could also differ for animal and plant foods. The study at least suggests that plant proteins with lower leucine content are healthier than animal protein.

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