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Health bowl with tuna, egg, quinoa
Credit: Marcus Nilsson

A high-protein diet has a host of benefits—it assists in muscle maintenance, regulates blood sugar, and aids weight loss—and new research from University of East Anglia says it may be as powerful as exercise, lowered salt intake, or even quitting smoking when it comes to improving cardiovascular health. A study of seven key amino acids showed that people who incorporated protein into their meals had lower blood pressure and reduced levels of arterial stiffness, which can restrict blood flow to vital organs.

Researchers studied the diets of 2,000 women from TwinsUK—a database of twin adults in the UK—and found that the more protein sources women consumed was directly correlated to heart health. The type of protein was as important as the quantity—people who consumed more plant-based proteins had lower blood pressure, while those who consumed animal-based sources had lower arterial stiffness. Given that 80 million adults have been diagnosed with high blood pressure, and arterial stiffness has been associated with cardiovascular disease, researchers call these results "exciting." The findings were published in the Journal of Nutrition.

Lead researcher Dr. Amy Jennings recommends that everyone increases their intake of high-protein foods, including meat, fish, lentils, broccoli, and spinach. To better help people understand serving size, she suggests trying to consume protein roughly equivalent to a 2.5 oz. steak (about the size of a deck of cards), a 3.5 oz. salmon (a little larger than a checkbook), or two cups of skim milk.

"The really surprising thing that we found is that amino acid intake has as much of an effect on blood pressure as established lifestyle risk factors such as salt intake, physical activity and alcohol consumption," Jennings said in a statement. "For arterial stiffness, the association was similar to the magnitude of change previously associated with not smoking."

Need some inspiration for cooking protein-rich meals? These 18 recipes will keep you full and energized all day.