7 Healthy Protein Sources That Support Heart Health and Longevity

A well-made Heart. Image by Magdaline Nicole.

This should come as no surprise, but the actions we take today significantly influence our future health. Of course, staying active in youth will tend to keep you stronger and more nimble as you age. But food habits also play a large role in how many more healthy years we can expect to see. Because cardiovascular disease is so prevalent in modern society, if we wish to live longer we need to know which foods keep your ticker ticking. So today we are going to explore healthy protein sources that are best for your heart and your overall longevity.



Why Protein?

Sadly, the number one cause of death in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease. (For the sake of this article, I must exclude coronavirus due to the anomalous nature of the recent pandemic.) A shocking 48% of all American adults suffer from some sort of heart disease. Accordingly, one-in-four succumb to the disease; including one-in three women [1]. Much of these figures could be prevented with proper lifestyle and food habits. As such, we should all be aware of the factors that help improve the health of the heart.

Your heart is a muscle, and as we know muscles require exercise in order to stay fit. So stay active! And when it comes to food, muscles require protein in order to build and repair their cells. However, not all protein sources carry the same benefits for your heart. That’s why it is important for us to understand the healthy sources of protein that cardiologists recommend.


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How Much Protein Do I Need?

Before we jump into those healthy protein sources, let’s take a moment to review how much of this macronutrient we really need. There are several online tools you can use to check if you have a balanced diet. In general, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that about 10-35% of your daily calories come from protein. This translates to approximately 46grams for an average adult woman per day; and about 56grams per adult male [2]. Of course, if you are bodybuilding or work out extensively, your protein requirements may be higher.

Proteins in the Blue Zones

Old Man Laughing

As we have discussed previously, the Blue Zones are the regions of the world where the populations tend to live the healthiest and longest lives. People in these areas – Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; or Loma Linda, California- regularly live to be over 100, and in good health. But to be clear, the long lives of the local residents are not due to the geography of the land. Rather, their healthy habits -including their diets- lead to an extended life.

Dr. Valter Longo, head of the Longevity Institute at USC, has spent decades researching the healthy diets of the world. His intent is to apply and share his findings in ways that more people can benefit and also extend their healthy years. His journey began from his childhood in Molochio, Italy; where by default he grew up eating a relatively “Blue Zone diet.” He discusses his origin and its impact to his research in his 2018 book, The Longevity Diet. Ultimately, based on years of research and dozens of studies, he and his team developed ProLon, the Fasting-Mimicking Diet. We’ll talk a bit more about that in a bit. The important thing to know right now is that his findings directly relate to this discussion on protein.


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The Best Sources of Protein for Healthy Heart

A healthy, well-functioning body needs the right balance of micronutrients and macronutrients. All are bountiful in natural foods, so they are not necessarily difficult to find. Where we get into trouble is knowing if we’re getting enough or too little of each, as well as the precise sources. In particular, protein is a macro about which many Americans could use some extra heart-healthy info. In this country, meat, eggs, and dairy remain the most popular sources of protein sources [3]. Unfortunately -but perhaps not surprisingly- this goes against what most people in Blue Zones typically eat.

Sources 1 – 4: Beans, Lentils, Chickpeas, Tofu (Plant Proteins!)

Beans and Lentils. Image by Tim Sullivan, StockSnap

The Blue Zone regions are spread across various parts of the globe; however, they all share a prominent attribute when it comes to eating. Dr. Longo points out that all their diets primarily consist of plants. This also includes their sources of protein. It does not take much guess work to understand why this helps promote a healthier, longer life. Instead of the added fat and other inflammatory compounds that accompany most meats, plant-based proteins naturally come with healthy doses of phytonutrients. Many of these, like polyphenols and antioxidants, actually promote cardiovascular health rather than putting extra strain on the heart.

Although there are many plant-based proteins, those most commonly eaten among the long-lived populations are beans, lentils, chickpeas, and tofu/soy. Blue Zones expert Dan Buettner has stated: “The longevity all-star food is beans. If you’re eating about a cup of beans a day, it’s probably worth an extra four years of life expectancy.” This is likely because they are proven to be good for your heart, and scientifically linked to lowering blood pressure. In much the same way, chickpeas are also a heart-healthy protein, seeing as they are rich in soluble fiber and help maintain steady blood sugar levels.

Source 5: Nuts

Nuts. Image by Marta Branco.

Another form of protein that are abundantly eaten by almost all Blue Zone populations is nuts. Obviously, there are many varieties of nuts, each indigenous to certain areas, and each with their own unique nutritional offerings. But in general, nuts are high in protein and excellent for your heart for two big reasons:
1) They are high in antioxidants, which helps with blood flow
2) They are also rich in monounsaturated fats, which are linked to a decreased risk of heart disease.


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Source 6: Fish

While the majority of their protein comes from plant-based sources, Blue Zone natives do consume some animal protein. When they do, it often comes in the form of fish. This provides the benefit of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which have been shown to decrease the risk of heart disease [5]. One thing to note, however, is that the fish they consume is wild-caught. This means the fish swam – and fed- naturally in rivers and oceans without the influence of human-made feed. To harness these benefits and lessen your impact on the environment, look for fish that is safely and sustainably sourced.

Source 7: Wild Game / Grass-Fed Meat

Similar to the above, meat can also be a good source of protein. However, it should not be viewed as the “main” source of protein, as it is in much of Western culture. If Blue Zone residents eat meat, it typically comes from sources hunted directly from nature, or from animals that lived openly and grazed naturally in pastures. When choosing for yourself, look for meat that is certified organic from grass-fed animals. Basically, look for meat that is as natural as possible; and limit your intake when possible.

Cows in a Natural Pasture. Image by Helena Lopes.

The Longevity Diet

As seen in the above list, there are many healthy protein sources that are good for your heart and overall health. But I’ve already hinted at the fact that we all need to eat an appropriate balance of all food groups. Dr. Longo’s work suggests that in order to optimize our health, we should eat a plant-based, lower-calorie, Mediterranean-type diet. That means our meals would be mostly vegan, with small-to-moderate portions of fish mixed in several times per week. This falls precisely in line with the Blue Zones diets mentioned above.

Moreover, in order to add more healthy years to our lives, Dr. Longo also recommends that we periodically fast. It may sound shocking, but going without food for extended periods is actually quite natural per how we evolved. In fact, fasting brings about a wide range of health benefits. Of course, prolonged periods of food abstention are not easy for most people. This brings us back once again to Dr. Longo, the intent of all his research, and its culmination in the ProLon Fasting-Mimicking Diet.


Prolon fasting mimicking diet

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ProLon FMD is a five-day meal kit that allows you to capture all the benefits of a prolonged fast while still eating every day. Its vegetarian soups, bars and crackers nourish your body with the nutrients you need stay fueled and healthy. (And importantly: not feeling like you’re completely starving!) However, the low level of calories trick your body into thinking it is fasting for five days, which triggers processes for cellular cleaning, protection and rejuvenation. As your cells become more efficient, and your health gets a boost. In turn you can expect an increase in longevity.

Bringing It Home

Speaking from personal experience, I never thought I would be able to fast for a week, but ProLon made it possible. I encourage you to read all about my experience on ProLon FMD where I discuss my weight loss, increased energy, and improved relationship with food. I won’t completely give away the punchline here, but I believe that a veggie-based, low-calorie diet certainly has it’s benefits. Especially when it is accompanied by periods of fasting.

If you’re not quite ready to try prolonged fasting, you can still incorporate the wisdom of the Blue Zones diet into your daily life. Here’s a simple vegetable and bean soup recipe for any time you need an easy, healthy meal. Just watch the video, follow the directions below, and enjoy!

Bonus Healthy Recipe! Summer Vegetable and White Bean Soup

Ingredients

White Beans (1 can = 15oz), drained and rinsed
1 Tbsp Olive Oil
1/2 large Onion, diced – about 1 cup
Carrots, diced – about 1/2 cup
Celery, diced – about 1/2 cup
Zucchini, diced – about 1 cup
1-2 cloves Garlic, minced
Fresh Thyme leaves, chopped – about 1 TBSP
Fresh Sage leaves, chopped – about 1 TBSP
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh ground Black Pepper
32 ounces low-sodium vegetable broth
Diced Tomatoes (1 can = 14.5oz)
2 cups Baby Spinach Leaves

Directions

  • Pour the beans into a small bowl and mash about half of them with the back of a spoon (leave some whole for texture), and set aside
  • Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium-high heat.
  • Add the onion, carrots, celery, zucchini, garlic, thyme, sage, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Cook until the vegetables are tender, cook while stirring occasionally. About 5 minutes.
  • Add the broth and the diced tomatoes (along with their juice) and bring to a boil.
  • Add the beans (whole and mashed) and the spinach leaves, and cook until the spinach is wilted. About 3 minutes.
  • Optional: I like to add a bit of lemon juice when serving for an extra bright burst of flavor.

Bon appétit!


Please let me know if you have any questions about any of the information above, or about my fasting experience. And of course, let me know how you like the soup!
Drop your comments below and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible. Thanks!


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References:

[1] Benjamin, et al. (2019, Mar 05). Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2019 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulaton.
[2] Dietary intake for adults aged 20 and over. CDC. (2019)
[3] Protein preferences of North American consumers. Institute of Food Technologists. (2017, Sep 12)
[4] Peter, et al. (2013, May-Jun). A fish a day, keeps the cardiologist away! – A review of the effect of omega-3 fatty acids in the cardiovascular system. Indian Journal of Endocrinology & Metabolism.

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Dave Hughes

Editor and Contributing Author at Kaldzar

Certified Biologist and Data Scientist
Constantly curious; Curiously compassionate
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