When it comes to using nutrition to battle high blood pressure, the operative approach may be to “Goldilocks” your protein intake.
According to a new study, people who get their protein from a variety of sources (four or more versus two or less) have a 66 percent lower chance of experiencing high blood pressure, also known as hypertension.
The study drew data from the China Health and Nutrition Survey, which from 1997 to 2015 gathered nutrition information from 12,200 adults in China.
The goal, according to Dr. Xianhui S. Qin, a study author with the National Clinical Research Center for Kidney Disease at Nanfang Hospital, Southern Medical University in Guangzhou, was to dig deeper into current knowledge about diet and blood pressure as well as the impact protein consumption may have on that.
“Hypertension is a major public health problem that increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and death in the world,” Qin told Healthline. “Therefore, it is important to identify more modifiable risk factors for early detection and prevention of hypertension.”
Since previous studies on the topic focused on overall protein consumption, Qin said, it seemed time to look more closely.
“We speculated that consuming a greater variety of proteins in proper quantity could guarantee the intake of different essential amino acids, which may correlate with better nutritional status, microbiota richness, and diversity,” Qin said.
The findings that varying your protein choices may help decrease chances of hypertension came less as a surprise than as a verification, Qin added.
What this means to you
According to Alice H. Lichtenstein, DSc, a professor of nutrition science and policy as well as director and senior scientist at the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory of Tufts University in Massachusetts and a spokesman for the AHA, this study confirms advice they’ve been giving for some time.
“The findings of this most recent study confirm the current AHA guidance,” Lichtenstein told Healthline.
Specifically, when it comes to protein, Lichtenstein suggested including foods from a variety of sources, mostly protein from plants (legumes and nuts), fish, and low fat or fat-free dairy products.
“If meat or poultry are desired, choose lean cuts and avoid processed forms,” she added.
Shaun Taylor Bevins, PT, MPT, a nutritionist who owns and operates Happy Healthy Simply Well, said the best reaction to this study is tempered learning and planning.
She added that adjustment is also important by “stepping back and seeing how it fits into the bigger picture.”
That bigger picture should include a better understanding of the variety of places we can source protein from.
“Too many people equate protein with animal flesh,” Bevins told Healthline. “But protein is well distributed throughout the food supply and is found in almost everything in at least small amounts.”
In addition, finding protein from other than the traditional sources (chicken, beef) may improve our overall health, not just our heart health.
“Eating a diversity of whole intact foods increases the chances that we will get a broader range of important nutrients which includes all the macronutrients, micronutrients, and phytonutrients,” Bevins said.
Plant sources of protein, she explained, are nutrient-dense, loaded with fiber.
Fiber, Bevins said, is something that actually feeds and nourishes a healthy and diverse microbiome, which appears to be a major player in preventing chronic inflammatory diseases like hypertension,
She also recommends foods rich in phytonutrients, including flavonoids, polyphenols, and other plant chemicals.
Qin hopes more detailed studies can be done in the future, including research among participants in other ethnicities and regions.
Qin would also like to see more related randomized trials “to further examine the associations between the variety and quantity of proteins intake from different food sources and the risks of hypertension and other health outcomes.”
“Moreover,” Qin added, “we should further define the appropriate amount of the intake of each protein in different populations.”
Lichtenstein agrees, particularly when it comes to diet in the United States.
“It is difficult to make direct comparisons between the U.S. and Chinese diets because dietary patterns and some food groups differ,” she said.
For example, she noted, dairy products, an important source of protein in the United States, were not included in the study.
In the meantime, Lichtenstein said, there are more steps people can take to build up positive heart health.
“Beyond protein sources, additional considerations for minimizing the risk of developing hypertension include achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight, reducing the intake of sodium (table salt), if alcohol is consumed limiting intake, and perhaps most importantly, adhering to the guidance regardless of where food is prepared or consumed,” she said.
“For most Americans, experience has demonstrated focusing on one individual component of the diet, rather than the whole dietary pattern, has resulted in disappointing outcomes,” she added.