High-protein diets increase cardiovascular risk by activating macrophage mTOR to suppress mitophagy

Nat Metab. 2020 Jan;2(1):110-125. doi: 10.1038/s42255-019-0162-4. Epub 2020 Jan 23.


High protein diets are commonly utilized for weight loss, yet have been reported to raise cardiovascular risk. The mechanisms underlying this risk are unknown. Here, we show that dietary protein drives atherosclerosis and lesion complexity. Protein ingestion acutely elevates amino acid levels in blood and atherosclerotic plaques, stimulating macrophage mTOR signaling. This is causal in plaque progression as the effects of dietary protein are abrogated in macrophage-specific Raptor-null mice. Mechanistically, we find amino acids exacerbate macrophage apoptosis induced by atherogenic lipids, a process that involves mTORC1-dependent inhibition of mitophagy, accumulation of dysfunctional mitochondria, and mitochondrial apoptosis. Using macrophage-specific mTORC1- and autophagy-deficient mice we confirm this amino acid-mTORC1-autophagy signaling axis in vivo. Our data provide the first insights into the deleterious impact of excessive protein ingestion on macrophages and atherosclerotic progression. Incorporation of these concepts in clinical studies will be important to define the vascular effects of protein-based weight loss regimens.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / metabolism*
  • Diet, High-Protein*
  • Heart Disease Risk Factors
  • Macrophage Activation
  • Macrophages / metabolism*
  • Mice
  • Mitophagy / physiology*
  • Plaque, Atherosclerotic / metabolism
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases / metabolism*


  • mTOR protein, mouse
  • TOR Serine-Threonine Kinases