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Eating too much protein could increase heart risk, new study reveals

A new study has found a molecular mechanism by which excessive dietary protein could increase atherosclerosis risk

Consuming over 22% of dietary calories from protein could increase the activation of immune cells that can cause atherosclerotic plaque formation,
Consuming over 22% of dietary calories from protein could increase the activation of immune cells that can cause atherosclerotic plaque formation, (Pexels)

In recent times, diets that prioritise protein-rich foods while limiting those high in carbohydrates have become increasingly popular. However, there is also a lack of clarity about the risks of consuming too much protein. A new study has found a molecular mechanism by which excessive dietary protein could increase the risk of atherosclerosis — a condition in which arteries thicken or harden due to the buildup of plaque.

The study, led by researchers from the University of Pittsburg, found that consuming over 22% of dietary calories from protein could increase the activation of immune cells that can cause atherosclerotic plaque formation, Medical Xpress explains. Furthermore, leucine, an amino acid, was identified to drive the pathological pathways associated with atherosclerosis.

Also read: How much protein do you really need?

"Our study shows that dialling up your protein intake in pursuit of better metabolic health is not a panacea. You could be doing real damage to your arteries," co-author Babak Razani said in a press statement. The findings were published in Nature Metabolism.

The study showed that amino acids, considered the building blocks of the protein, can trigger disease through specific signalling mechanisms and also change the metabolism of these cells, the researchers explained in the statement. “For example, small immune cells in the vasculature called macrophages can trigger the development of atherosclerosis,” co-author Bettina Mittendorfer said in the statement.

The researchers added that they hope this study starts a conversation about ways of changing diets in a way that can influence body function at a molecular level and reduce disease risks. 

Over the years, several studies have focused on the benefits of protein-rich diets. For instance, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in January showed that women who consume higher amounts of plant protein develop fewer chronic diseases and are more likely to be healthier as they age. Another study, published in the Journal of Dairy Science in February, found that a protein-rich breakfast can increase concentration and satiety.

However, there is a need for expansive research and awareness on how much protein a body requires and the effects of excess protein. Blindly increasing protein intake is not good for health, Razani says in the statement. "Instead, it's important to look at the diet as a whole and suggest balanced meals that won't inadvertently exacerbate cardiovascular conditions, especially in people at risk of heart disease and vessel disorders,” he adds.

Also read: When should you include a protein shake in your diet?

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