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Those who followed this diet had a 66% lower risk of hypertension – experts

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Take note if you regularly consume whey protein shakes or yoghurt to meet your protein needs. According to researchers, not only your fruit and vegetable intake, but also your protein intake, should be diversified for optimal health.

In their most recent study on protein-eating habits, researchers at China’s Southern Medical University examined 12,200 adults about their diets, specifically their protein-eating habits.

Throughout the 18-year study, participants were assigned a “protein variety score” based on the number of different protein sources consumed, with one point assigned for each type of protein consumed on a regular basis, ranging from whole grains to refined grains, processed red meat to unprocessed meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and legumes, with a maximum variety score of 8.

During the trial, over a third (35%) of men and women in their early forties at the start of the trial acquired hypertension for the first time.

However, research published in the journal Hypertension found that people who ate protein from a wide range of meals had the lowest risk of developing high blood pressure. Those who consumed the highest variety of protein, at least four distinct types on a regular basis, had a 66% decreased risk of hypertension.

It wasn’t the amount of protein taken that made the difference – those in the study who ate the most or least protein foods had the highest risk of high blood pressure, while a moderate intake was found to be the most helpful — but the range.

“The heart health message is that consuming a balanced diet with proteins from different sources, rather than focusing on a single source of dietary protein, may help to prevent the development of high blood pressure,” said Professor Xianhui Qin, the paper’s lead author.

“Components such as plant fibre from protein-providing wholegrains and legumes, and omega-3 from oily fish and eggs, are also associated with lower blood pressure,” says Alex Ruani, a researcher in nutrition science education at University College London. “So the more different types of protein foods you eat, the bigger the combined beneficial effect.”

Blood pressure isn’t the only thing that improves. Variety in protein is important for other reasons, according to Ruani. It is necessary for body tissues, mood management, skincare, muscle growth, and healthy muscle maintenance, as well as mineral absorption to prevent mineral shortages that lead to damaged bones.

Protein is the most satiating of all macronutrients, and it aids in the reduction of hunger pangs and cravings. However, it’s all too easy to get hooked on the latest trendy protein sources, limiting your intake to the detriment of your health.

“There are more than 140 amino acids found in nature and 20 of these amino acids are needed by human cells to produce biological proteins, while nine are considered essential in the diet because the body can’t manufacture them,” Ruani adds. “The more types of protein we eat, the more we increase our intake of these essential and non-essential amino acids and experience the health benefits associated with them.”

Here’s how to get more protein into your diet:

How much protein should you consume?

According to government guidelines, we need roughly 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day, or 45 grams for an adult woman and 55.5 grams for a man, to stay healthy. To give you an idea of what this looks like, a serving of tofu contains 21.5 grams, a small Greek yoghurt contains 10.6 grams, and a tuna steak contains 24.9 grams.

But Dr. Leigh Breen, a researcher in the field of skeletal muscle metabolism at the University of Birmingham believes that “levels of protein needed to support body and muscle health are currently underestimated.”

“Our need for protein increases as we age because our bodies become less efficient at using it and muscle mass starts to decline, but we also need more if we do endurance or strength exercise at any age as we have to put back what our muscles have used.”

According to Breen, from middle age onwards, a protein consumption of roughly 1.2 grams per day is probably required to avoid shortage and muscle loss, which is 50% more than is advised.

“Even more, about 1.6g of protein per kilogram of body weight a day or about 130g for someone weighing 12.5 stones, seems to be the requirement if you are very active,” Breen says.

Beyond that, according to research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, additional protein does not result in increased muscle mass.

“There seems to be this sweet spot for protein benefits,” Breen adds.

Is animal protein a high-quality source?

Milk, yoghurt, eggs, fish, meat, and whey all contain all nine necessary amino acids that our bodies require to operate, earning them the reputation of being superior sources of protein versus plant proteins. However, while you receive more protein per 100g of animal foods (32g in a 100g chicken breast versus 9g in 100g of lentils or haricot beans), it isn’t necessarily better for you.

“People tend to think of animal protein as better quality, but although many plants don’t contain all essential amino acids, it’s very easy to get them if you’re eating a mix of foods and a varied diet,” points out Dr. Megan Rossi, a research fellow in nutrition at King’s College London. “In terms of protein, I wouldn’t say animal sources are superior and getting protein from plants really isn’t that much harder, you just need a range of sources and variety is key.”

Is it possible to get enough protein solely from plants?

There are several exceptions, such as quinoa, hemp, and soya, to the rule that most plant foods aren’t “complete sources” of necessary amino acids. However, getting as many diverse kinds of plant protein as possible will meet our needs, and incomplete plant proteins — such as those found in nuts, seeds, legumes, pulses, grains, and many vegetables — are an important component of the mix.

“As long as you combine legumes with a grain or rice with beans, for example, you get a complete protein and it doesn’t all need to be eaten in the same meal as you can spread it through the day,” Rossi says, but you’d need to eat a lot more plant foods.

“It’s definitely doable, but there’s a volume issue and that is why plant protein intake is sometimes linked to gastrointestinal discomfort,” she adds. “Studies on athletes show that getting enough plant protein to support training can initially entail bloating and side effects that can also get in the way of sports performance, so it’s worth increasing amounts carefully.”

“Baked beans on wholegrain toast, noodles in a peanut source and lentils or beans with pasta are all great pairings of incomplete plant proteins,” says Rhiannon Lambert, a dietitian. “And try to pick protein foods that give you the best all-round nutrition possible with fibre and other nutrients.”

Do not forget oats, spinach and artichokes.

“Most foods, including leafy greens such as cabbage and broccoli, contain some protein, but people are often surprised at some of the top plant protein providers,” she says. One of her favourites is oats, with a 40g serving providing 7g of protein.

“Top that with a small handful of pistachios [6g of protein] or almonds [6.5g] and a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds [3.5g] and you are packing in protein at breakfast,” Rossi says.

Guava (2 fruits = 3g protein), artichoke (3.3g per 100g), mushrooms (3.1g per 100g), avocado (3g per 100g), and jackfruit (1.5g per 100g) are all unusual protein sources.

Potatoes have 1.9g of protein per 100g and “significant amounts of the essential amino acids leucine, lysine, phenylalanine, valine, and tyrosine,” according to Ruani. Spinach has 2.5g of protein per cooked 90g serving — Ruani says frozen spinach has even higher amounts of the essential amino acids cysteine and methionine than fresh spinach — and spinach has 2.5g of protein per cooked 90g serving.

A side portion of green peas or 75g cooked wholewheat pasta will provide you with 4.5g of protein.

“Even a boring plate of lettuce leaves and cherry tomatoes supply a few grams of protein,” Rossi says. “But add couscous, chickpeas, almonds and a dollop of yoghurt for a super salad and it could easily be 30g protein per serving. The more sources the merrier.”

Diversify your protein intake as well

Most of us eat more protein in the evening than at other times of the day, but according to Breen, balancing your intake throughout the day becomes increasingly important as you get older. Trying to eat more total protein and diversity at breakfast and lunchtime, in particular, could aid to keep muscle mass as you become older.

During one of his investigations, he and colleagues looked for patterns of food behavior in 120 people of various ages. They discovered that middle-aged and older persons ate lower-quality and less diverse protein sources, with bread commonly serving as their sole source of protein at lunchtime.

“The body mechanisms responsible for producing new muscle need to be stimulated regularly if they are to function well,” adds Breen. “This stimulation happens when we eat protein foods, but from middle age onwards the mechanisms become less efficient and we found people really need to spread protein intake evenly across the day to maximise muscle benefits.”

Are protein bars and shakes an option?

Protein-added foods, protein supplements, bars, and shakes are mostly unnecessary unless you’re an elite athlete. Rossi said her King’s College London research team is looking at the impact of such items on the microbiota.

“Protein bars, products and shakes tend to be full of additives,” she says. “We are looking at the potential of these additives having a negative impact on our gut health.”

Processed meat is a poor source of protein.

If you get most of your protein from salami, chorizo, sausages, bacon, and processed meats in ready meals, not only will your “variety score” be shockingly low, but you’ll also be missing out on nutrients you’d get from other protein-rich sources like whole grains, legumes, fish, and eggs, according to Ruani.

“There’s the added factor that these processed meats tend to have a very high sodium content and that raises your hypertension risk even more,” she says. “So these should really be avoided.”

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