Get Your Protein From Nuts, Not Meat Says Major Medical Study

In one of the largest multi-year studies of its kind, a report published last year in the International Journal of Epidemiology looked at more than 81,000 Seventh-day Adventists in the US and Canada, with participants pretty evenly split between vegetarians and meat-eaters. From 2002 to 2007, participants kept records of what kinds of foods they were eating, including how much meat, nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables they were consuming.

Titled “Patterns of Plant and Animal Protein Intake are Strongly Associated with Cardiovascular Mortality: The Adventist Health Study-2 cohort,” the report was a five year collaboration of researchers from Loma Linda University School of Public Health in California and AgroParisTech and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in Paris, France.

The study found that people who consumed large amounts of meat protein experienced a 60-percent increase in cardiovascular disease (CVD), while people who consumed large amounts of protein from nuts and seeds experienced a 40-percent reduction in CVD.

Historically, fat and cholesterol have been the major focus when looking at dietary contributors to cardiovascular disease, but study author Dr. Gary Fraser noted increasing evidence that the type of protein consumed— animal or plant— could also be an important risk factor.

“While dietary fats are part of the story in affecting risk of cardiovascular disease, proteins may also have important and largely overlooked independent effects on risk,” Fraser said, adding that researchers have long suspected that nut and seed consumption protects against heart and vascular disease, while red meat consumption increases the risk.

This means that above and beyond the traditionally recognized notion of “bad fats” in meats and “helpful fats” in nuts and seeds, “The full picture probably also involves the biological effects of proteins in these foods,” Dr. Fraser said.

Beyond Protein

In addition to the harms of animal protein, researchers say the majority of Americans eat too much protein generally and should be eating more plant-based foods and emphasizing intake of other critical nutrients. According to Harvard’s Dept. of Nutrition, while “protein plays many critical roles in our biological functions, optimal performance, and satiety,” Americans are on average consuming nearly twice as much protein as is recommended daily.

In a nutshell: We should be eating less protein, and getting more of it from nuts, which also offer a plethora of other important nutrients. According to the North American Vegetarian Society, “Nuts and seeds are extremely nutrient-dense. They provide generous amounts of calories, fats, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Trace minerals like magnesium, zinc, selenium and copper are important but may be under-consumed in today’s largely processed Western diet, and even in some plant-based diets. Nuts and seeds are a reliable and delicious source of these essential nutrients. Plus, more than just a way to meet basic nutrient needs, nuts and seeds have been shown to protect against disease. Phytochemicals, bioactive compounds that help fight illness, in nuts and seeds include ellagic acid, flavonoids, phenolic compounds, luteolin, isoflavones and tocotrienols. Nuts also contain plant sterols, thought to help keep cholesterol levels in check and reduce cancer risk.

A Win-Win-Win for Health, Animals, Climate

Green hazelnuts on a tree branch.

In addition to promoting human health, and protecting animals by providing nutritious alternatives to meat and dairy, sourcing more of our food from native nut trees is also a win for the environment.

Climate scientists estimate we need to plant as many as 1 trillion more trees in order to avoid the worst impacts of climate warming. A 2017 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that “trees have the greatest potential to cost-effectively reduce carbon emissions. This is because they absorb carbon dioxide as they grow, removing it from the atmosphere. The results of the study indicate that the three largest options for increasing the number and size of trees (reforestation, avoiding forest loss, and better forestry practices) could cost-effectively remove 7 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide annually by 2030, equivalent to taking 1.5 billion gasoline-burning cars off the roads.

Restoring forests on formerly forested lands, and avoiding further loss of global forests, are the two largest opportunities. Success depends in large part on better forestry and agricultural practices, particularly those that reduce the amount of land used by livestock. Reducing the footprint of livestock would release vast areas across the globe for trees and can be achieved while safeguarding food security.”

Planting more food trees would not only sequester carbon, it would also restore biodiversity, creating much-needed wildlife habitat. Habitat loss due to clearing land for grazing and animal feed crops is now recognized as the number one driver of wildlife species extinction. Planting native nut trees meaningfully addresses climate change and biodiversity loss while improving human health and global food security, and sparing animals. Indigenous nut tree species need less water, often requiring nothing more than rainwater to produce abundant harvests. Initiatives like the Acornucopia Project not only plant and promote native nut trees, but also encourage people to forage native nuts.

A detailed chart comparing nutrient values of nuts can be viewed at nuthealth.org/nutrition.

Ashley Capps
Ashley Capps received an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her first book of poems is Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields. The recipient of a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, she works as a writer, editor and researcher specializing in farmed animal welfare and vegan advocacy. Ashley has written for numerous animal justice organizations, and in addition to her ongoing work for A Well-Fed World, she is a writer and editor at Free from Harm.