• Meat may increase your risk of CVD while nuts and seeds could protect your heart. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)Source: The Washington Post/Getty Images
Eating meat may increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, while eating lots of nuts and seeds could protect your heart, a new study says.
Yasmin Noone

6 Apr 2018 - 11:22 AM  UPDATED 25 Sep 2018 - 10:33 AM

If you want to live a long life with a fit and healthy heart, you may want to consider replacing some of meat you eat with nuts and seeds.

This is according to a new study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology this week, which found that meat proteins may increase your risk of dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD).

The research shows that the protein from nuts and seeds is good for your heart health.

“Protein-based factor analysis showed that a high contribution of protein from meat increased risk of CVD mortality, whereas a high contribution of protein from nuts and seeds is protective,” the study reads.

“Our results suggest that healthy choices can be advocated based on protein sources, specifically preferring diets low in meat intake and with a higher intake of plant proteins from nuts and seeds.”

Researchers from the USA and France made the discovery after examining dietary information of 81,337 men and women from the Adventist Health Study-2.

The study's authors analysed the health data of the Adventists – many of whom either don’t eat meat or restrict the type or quantity of meat eaten for religious reasons – and noted that the consumption of animal proteins increased CVD risk. On the other hand, plant-based proteins lowered CVD risk before old age “thus impacting on premature CVD death”.

“Our results suggest that healthy choices can be advocated based on protein sources, specifically preferring diets low in meat intake and with a higher intake of plant proteins from nuts and seeds.”

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Accredited Practising Dietitian at Nutrition Australia (ACT), Leanne Elliston agrees that nuts and seeds can be protective for your heart health.

“In particular, we [now] know that it might not be only the healthy fats but the protein in nuts and seeds that helps you to improve your cardiovascular health,” says Elliston.

But, she adds, don’t go overboard on the seed and nut trail. “You shouldn’t have too much of one particular kind of food in your diet. You need to get the balance right.”

“We are strongly supportive of the message that you should have more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds in their diet and less processed meats and fatty meats in your diet.”

Chief medical adviser for the National Heart Foundation of Australia, Garry Jennings, also confirms the study's findings: eating less meat may be able to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.

“On balance, I think the message behind this study is right,” Jennings tells SBS. “We are strongly supportive of the message that you should have more vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds in their diet and less processed meats and fatty meats in your diet.”

However, he notes, the quality - not just quantity - of the meat you consume may also influence your health. 

“Australian beef is also, generally, very lean compared to where these studies are done, like in the US,” says Jennings. “Our chicken is also lean if you take the skin off, but it’s not lean if you don’t and it’s not lean if you eat Kentucky Fried.”

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Elliston warns against people giving up meat – red and white – all together for fear that it will cause heart disease.

“Meat can play a very important part in our diet: it’s played an important part in our diet for thousands of years. Let’s not lose sight of that. Meat is not going to harm us if we eat it in moderation as part of a healthy diet," Elliston says.

“So the question is, how much meat are you having? You don’t need to cut out meat from your diet, just choose to eat a good quality meat that is lean and have a couple of meat-free days a week.” 

Both experts support the idea of a well-rounded healthy, balanced diet that includes protein (in the form of animal or plant) and provides zinc, iron, calcium, B12 along with other essential nutrients.

Meat and mortality

The study, a health database of Seventh-day Adventists in the USA and Canada collected between 2002 and 2007, has been of interest to researchers over the years given the uniformity in the participants’ religious beliefs, the Adventists’ unique dietary habits and the fact that the consumption of meat is theologically discouraged.

A study from 2013, which also accessed the Adventist Health Study-2 data, looked at whether being meat-free may make you live a longer life (or die earlier).

It examined the health over 73,300 male and female participants aged over 25, all who were active Seventh-day Adventists.

“So the question is how much meat are you having?"

Their diets were assessed at the start of the trial and each participant was categorised into one of five dietary groups: non-vegetarian, semi-vegetarian (a vegetarian who eats animal products occasionally); pesco-vegetarian (a vegetarian who eats fish and seafood); lacto-ovo–vegetarian (a vegetarian who doesn’t meat but eats some animal products such as eggs and dairy) and vegan (someone who doesn’t eat animal products).

The study found that “vegans, lacto-ovo–vegetarians, and pesco-vegetarians had significantly lower mortality rates compared with non-vegetarians”.

Put simply: the people who did not eat meat died at a later age when compared to those who did.

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The study’s authors reason that the lower mortality rates for those who don’t eat meat could be due to the fact that vegetarian diets are usually lower in saturated fat and higher in fibre, which may lower your risk of heart disease. 

They also recognised the difference between a vegetarian who gives up meat for ethical or environmental reasons and one who gives up meat because they religiously believe in the perceived superiority of being a vegetarian for health reasons.

“We believe that perceived healthfulness of vegetarian diets may be a major motivator of Adventist vegetarians," the study reads.

The Oxford Vegetarian Study, which famously looked at the dietary outcomes of British vegetarians and non-vegetarians in the late 1990s, also showed that vegans had lower total- and LDL-cholesterol concentrations than meat eaters did. Vegetarians and fish eaters had similar cholesterol measures as the meat eaters.

However, a 12-year follow-up showed that death rates were lower in non-meat-eaters than in meat eaters for all causes of death.

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