High-protein diets are commonly utilized for weight loss, yet they 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 mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signalling. This is causal in plaque progression, because 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 mammalian target of rapamycin complex 1 (mTORC1)-dependent inhibition of mitochondrial autophagy (mitophagy), accumulation of dysfunctional mitochondria and mitochondrial apoptosis. Using macrophage-specific mTORC1- and autophagy-deficient mice, we confirm this amino acid–mTORC1–autophagy signalling axis in vivo. Our data provide insights into the deleterious impact of excessive protein ingestion on macrophages and atherosclerotic progression. Incorporation of these concepts in clinical studies is important to define the vascular effects of protein-based weight loss regimens. © 2020, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.