How to choose heart-healthy protein foods
Published: 12 April 2021
Choosing heart-healthy protein foods can help to minimise your risk of heart disease. What foods are the best sources of protein and other nutrients?
Lots of foods contain protein, and each can impact our risk of heart disease in different ways. No matter what style of diet you follow, we recommend you eat a variety of protein-rich foods with as little processing as possible.
Take chicken for example. Chicken breast or chicken pieces are high-quality sources of protein. However, when the chicken is made into nuggets or sausages, it becomes highly processed, with a long list of added ingredients and often a poorer nutritional profile.
What does protein do in our body?
No matter what age or stage you're at in life, protein is an essential nutrient. Its main role in the body is growth and repair. Most people think getting enough protein is important for their muscles, but it's just as important for forming and maintaining our hair, nails, skin, and organs, including your heart 1.
Protein is made up of 20 amino acids. Some of these can be made by our body, but others ('essential amino acids') must come from the food we eat.
How much protein do we need?
The amount of protein each person needs is varied. It depends on your age and gender, but it may also depend on your lifestyle and health too. Teenagers, pregnant women, and older adults all need more protein.
The amount of protein recommended each day.1:
- Women (aged 19 to 70): 46 grams
- Women (aged 70+): 57 grams
- Men (aged 19 to 70): 64 grams
- Men (aged 70+): 81 grams
If you don't have enough good quality protein in your diet it can lead to muscle loss (including damage to the heart) and can impact on your immune system too 3. If you have too much protein in your diet you may miss out on essential nutrients from not eating enough foods like vegetables, fruit, and whole grains.
Plant versus animal proteins
Protein can come from plant or animal-based foods.
- Animal sources: meat, fish, chicken, eggs, milk, cheese, and yoghurt.
- Plant sources: legumes (including soy protein), nuts and seeds.
Each protein source can have a beneficial, neutral, or potentially harmful effect on your heart health and risk of heart disease. For example, oily fish contains heart-healthy fats like omega-3 fats which may help prevent blood clots and lower blood pressure. Whereas red meat, chicken and eggs contain saturated fat and too much saturated fat is associated with increasing 'bad' LDL cholesterol.
Animal foods tend to be 'complete proteins' which mean they contain all nine of the 'essential amino acids'. Some plant foods contain all of the nine 'essential amino acids', including soy protein, quinoa and chia seeds. However, most plant proteins lack one or more of the nine essential amino acids, so it's important to eat a variety of plant proteins from different sources.
Sources of protein
These foods contain varying levels of protein per serving. Instead of focusing on protein, try to think about the whole food and the other nutrients each food gives your body.
1. Legumes, nuts, and seeds
Legumes like chickpeas and kidney beans contain plant-based protein and soluble fibre which helps you to feel full for longer. Legumes, nuts and seeds are good plant-based sources of protein for everyone including people who choose to eat a vegan or vegetarian diet. Eating legumes instead of meat has been shown to lower 'bad' LDL cholesterol.
Tip: Legumes come in a variety of shapes and sizes and can be bought dried, canned, or frozen. Next time you shop try to choose something new like split peas or frozen edamame beans.
2. Fish and seafood
Fish and seafood are great sources of protein that are low in saturated fat. Oily fish like mackerel,
sardines and salmon are particularly high in omega-3 fats which increase the levels of 'good' HDL cholesterol in your blood and are good for your heart.
A Mediterranean style of diet contains moderately high amounts of fish and has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease (including coronary heart disease and stroke)4.
Tip: Aim to eat fish a couple of times each week, particularly oily fish. Canned or plain frozen fish are cheap and convenient. Look out for frozen prawns, frozen plain fish, or canned salmon.
Poultry includes chicken, duck and turkey and is a good source of protein, vitamin A, magnesium, and zinc 5.
When poultry is eaten within a heart-healthy diet it has a neutral impact on heart health. Poultry can be eaten as part of an overall heart-healthy diet, alongside plenty of other good quality sources of protein and plant foods 5.
Tip: Buy chicken in bulk when it’s on special and freeze it into smaller portions so you can use it when you need to. Choose lean cuts like chicken thigh or breast or remove the skin.
4. Red meat
Red meat includes beef, veal, lamb, mutton, pork, goat, and venison. Lean red meat (meat with less fat) is a rich source of protein as well as iron, zinc and vitamin B12 5. Eating high levels of red meat can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke. For heart health, we recommend limiting your weekly intake of cooked red meat to 350 grams or less 5.
Replacing red meat with plant-based alternative like legumes, soy or nuts has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol.
Tip: add lentils, chickpeas, or kidney beans to dishes like spaghetti bolognaise, casseroles, stews, and winter soups to bulk them out and reduce the amount of meat you need.
Eggs are a good source of protein, vitamins A, E, B12 and minerals like selenium. Eggs contain cholesterol however this has little effect on our blood cholesterol. Foods high in saturated fat and trans-fat have the biggest impact on your cholesterol levels.
For most people, eggs can be included as part of a heart-healthy diet. People who have an increased risk of heart disease can eat up to six eggs per week as part of a heart-healthy diet 6.
Tip: Your whole plate matters most. When having eggs swap bacon and white bread for sautéed tomatoes, spinach, and whole grain bread.
What about processed meats?
Processed meats include sausages, ham, bacon, and corned beef, which aren't good quality sources of protein. They're high in salt, additives, and saturated fat, which are linked to a higher risk of heart disease. There's also strong evidence that eating processed meat is linked to an increased risk of colorectal cancer 7.
Do you need to take a protein supplement?
Protein supplements can come from both animal and plant-based protein and may be sold as protein powders, shakes, or bars. They're a convenient and concentrated source of protein 8.
Most people don't need a protein supplement to meet their protein requirements and will get more than enough protein and plenty of other heart-healthy nutrients just by eating a variety of protein-rich foods.
However, if you think your protein needs are high and you can't get enough in your diet it's best to speak to a registered dietitian or nutritionist.
Choose quality over quantity
Remember, no single food or nutrient promotes heart health and it's your overall diet that matters most. Choose a variety of plant and animal-based protein foods with a focus on legumes, nuts, seeds, fish, and seafood. Chicken and red meat can be eaten as part of an overall heart-healthy diet – the less processed the better.7 foods that lower cholesterol
- New Zealand Ministry of Health (2006). Nutrient Reference Values for Australia and New Zealand. Version 1.2. Updated September 2017.
- New Zealand FOODfiles™ 2018 Version 01 (2018): foodcomposition.co.nz
- Afzali et al (2018). Skeletal muscle cells actively shape (auto)immune responses. Auto Imm Rev. 17: 518-529.
- Heart Foundation (2013). Dietary patterns and the heart: Evidence paper
- Heart Foundation (2020). Red meat and poultry position statement
- Heart Foundation (2016). Eggs and the heart position statement
- World Cancer Research Fund (2018). Recommendations and public health and policy implications (PDF)
- Health Promotion Agency (2019). Behind the hype: protein supplement (PDF)