The moderate essential amino acid restriction entailed by low-protein vegan diets may promote vascular health by stimulating FGF21 secretion.


McCarty MF

Year Published: 



Horm Mol Biol Clin Investig.


Study Design: 


The serum total and LDL cholesterol levels of long-term vegans tend to be very low. The characteristically low ratio of saturated to unsaturated fat in vegan diets, and the absence of cholesterol in such diets, clearly contribute to this effect. But there is reason to suspect that the quantity and composition of dietary protein also play a role in this regard. Vegan diets of moderate protein intake tend to be relatively low in certain essential amino acids, and as a result may increase hepatic activity of the kinase GCN2, which functions as a gauge of amino acid status. GCN2 activation boosts the liver's production of fibroblast growth factor 21 (FGF21), a factor which favorably affects serum lipids and metabolic syndrome. The ability of FGF21 to decrease LDL cholesterol has now been traced to at least two mechanisms: a suppression of hepatocyte expression of sterol response element-binding protein-2 (SREBP-2), which in turn leads to a reduction in cholesterol synthesis; and up-regulated expression of hepatocyte LDL receptors, reflecting inhibition of a mechanism that promotes proteasomal degradation of these receptors. In mice, the vascular benefits of FGF21 are also mediated by favorable effects on adipocyte function - most notably, increased adipocyte secretion of adiponectin, which directly exerts anti-inflammatory effects on the vasculature which complement the concurrent reduction in LDL particles in preventing or reversing atherosclerosis. If, as has been proposed, plant proteins preferentially stimulate glucagon secretion owing to their amino acid composition, this would represent an additional mechanism whereby plant protein promotes FGF21 activity, as glucagon acts on the liver to boost transcription of the FGF21 gene.