The 5 Most Cardiovascular-Friendly Forms of Protein, According to the American Heart Association’s New Guidelines

Photo: Stocksy/Nataša Mandić
This week, the American Heart Association released new dietary recs for how to eat with your cardiovascular health in mind—their first update since 2006. Some of the recommendations aren't all that surprising, like filling up on fruits and veggies and favoring whole grains (like oats, brown rice, and quinoa) over refined grains (including processed foods made with white flour, like white bread). But the guidelines also address newer or more nuanced nutrition research, like the top types of cooking oil for your cardiovascular system and the best heart-healthy proteins. The latter in particular has long caused confusion for those eating with cardiovascular health in mind.

For example, you may be wondering if there's still a place for animal proteins as the plant-based revolution has taken off. Or what the deal with soy is. Here's what the AHA wants everyone to know about meat according to an article published on their site: "In general, red meats—such as beef, pork, and lamb—have more saturated fat than skinless chicken, fish, and plant proteins." Saturated fats aren't beneficial for heart health the way that unsaturated fats are. "Saturated fats can raise your blood cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease," the article reads. "If you eat poultry, pork, beef, or other meats, choose lean meat, skinless poultry, and unprocessed forms." They also recommend keeping the portion size to three ounces, about the size of a deck of cards.

As for soy, the AHA is all for it. Scientific studies have shown a connection between soy consumption and lower cholesterol levels, which is directly linked to benefitting cardiovascular health.

But if you're curious as to what protein sources are the very best for heart health, check out the list below, which is based directly on the AHA's latest dietary recommendations. Use it as a guide for knowing what protein sources to incorporate into your meals on a regular basis to support your cardiovascular health.

The top five heart-healthy proteins, according to the American Heart Association

1. Fish

The omega-3 fatty acids in fish directly benefit the heart, one reason why eating it regularly is linked to living longer. "Our body can't make omega-3 fatty acids, so we must get them from food," nutrition expert Maya Feller, RD, told Well+Good in the past. Fish highest in omega-3s include salmon, sardines, mackerel, cod, herring, trout, and tuna. Besides being good for the heart, omega-3 filled-fish is also important for brain health. (Cue the required "swimming with benefits" pun.)

2. Nuts

One reason why nuts are great for heart health is for the same reason as fish: They're high in omega-3s. Can you guess which type of nut is especially good for heart health? It's macadamia nuts, which are higher in omega-3s than other types of nuts. Nuts also are high in antioxidants and phytonutrients, which are linked to protecting against high cholesterol, another reason why they're such a heart-healthy food. Plus, they may energize you and fend off any fatigue caused by high cholesterol (or the unhealthy habits that contribute to it).

3. Beans, lentils, and chickpeas

Chances are, you already have this heart-healthy protein in your pantry. Similar to nuts, beans, lentils, and chickpeas are all linked to protecting against high cholesterol because they're high in antioxidants and phytonutrients. Eating one of these plant-based protein sources on the reg can also lower blood pressure, another checkmark on the list for cardiovascular health.

Watch the video below to learn more about the health benefits of chickpeas:

4. Soy

As previously mentioned, scientific studies have shown that consuming soy regularly can help lower cholesterol levels—good news on the cardiovascular health front. Tofu, tempeh, edamame, soymilk, and miso are all examples of ways to consume soy. Tempeh is higher in protein than tofu, but both are great choices for incorporating into your meals.

5. Peas

Peas often get overlooked as a protein source, but just because they're small doesn't mean they aren't mighty. Besides being high in protein (there are eight grams in a cup), peas contain two amino acids lysine (which helps turn fatty acids into energy) and arginine (which helps the body heal faster after injury and can decrease blood pressure).

You know what's so great about this list, besides the obvious fact that each of these protein-rich foods help keep your ticker...ticking? There's so much you can do with each one of these forms of protein, particularly the plant-based ones. Because of their versatility, the meal ideas are truly endless. No matter what your dietary preferences are, you can support your cardiovascular health through what you eat without missing a, well, beat.

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