Lose the Meat Habit: Eat Proteins That Do Your Heart Good

by Amy Hendel, P.A. Health Writer

There’s been a significant push to reduce consumption of processed foods to limit dietary sugar levels. That effort has led to the rise of new diet trends like the Paleo Diet, and a renewed interest (yet again) in the Atkin’s Diet because these diets emphasize consumption of protein. Weight Watchers Freestyle designates shrimp, a protein, as a free food. If meat is a featured protein in your diet, then an April 2018 study on heart health may have you re-thinking your meat habit.

Mixed nuts.

The Adventist Health Study-2 cohort

It’s worth exploring the study because the findings were profound. It involved close to 81,400 subjects, men and women, whose diets were evaluated by questionnaires several times during the period of 2002 – 2007. Death rates associated with meat eaters was significantly higher than death rates among people who mostly consumed nuts and seeds as their regular dietary protein sources. In other words – eat less meat and increase consumption of plant proteins like nuts and seeds for heart health.

Vegetarian spread of food.

Vegans eat plant-based proteins

Nuts and seeds (and legumes) are plant-based non-meat sources of protein. Vegan means non-meat, plant-based. In a national online survey, respondents were asked to select “vegan” or “plant-based” in a series of questions. Interestingly, the term plant-based was identified as offering more nutrients, tasting better, and being healthier compared to vegan. Plant-based seems to support positive dietary choice among consumers. So expect to see it advertised more on foods and as a swap out for vegan.

Nuts on wood table.

So what’s so special about nuts and seeds?

First of all they are tasty, crunchy, satisfying sources of plant-based protein. They contain a nice dose of dietary fiber and a host of micronutrients that support your health. They contain monounsaturated fats, which help to raise HDL. They also contain unsaturated fats which don't raise LDL. Nuts are good sources of the antioxidant vitamin E, magnesium, copper, phosphorus, potassium, selenium, and folic acid.

Bacon slices.

Let’s get to the heart of the matter

Eating meat frequently is associated with heart disease. Red meats tend to have more cholesterol and saturated fat than skinless poultry, fish and plant-based proteins. An April 2013 study in Nature Medicine suggested a link between the L-carnitine found in meat and atherosclerosis. An earlier study in June 2010 pooled findings from a number of studies and found that red and processed meat consumption was strongly linked to CAD and stroke. Processed and unprocessed red meats undermine heart health.

Egg in frying pan.

The great meat swap out

Meatless Mondays, a campaign launched in 2003 that fed off the World War 1 effort to reduce consumption of key staples to aid the war effort, aims to help consumers to “give up meat” once-a-week for health benefits - specifically to reduce the chronic illnesses like heart disease associated with regular meat consumption. Other non-meat choices like eggs and egg whites, fish, high protein pasta and beans and legumes are healthy too, but let’s focus on the heart-healthy foods from the study – nuts and seeds.


Walnuts and heart health

Nuts may reduce the risk of developing blood clots which can cause a fatal heart attack. Nuts also seem to improve the health of arterial linings. Eating nuts has been linked to having lower levels of inflammation. When it comes to heart health what makes walnuts so special? Walnuts have one of the highest levels of omega 3 fatty acids which may prevent dangerous heart rhythms that can lead to a heart attack. One quarter cup of shelled nuts has about 183 calories, 18 grams of fat, 4 grams protein.


Almonds are good for blood vessel health

Research shows that almonds can help to keep blood vessels healthy. Almonds also increase the level of antioxidants in the bloodstream, reduce blood pressure and improved blood flow. Native to the Mediterranean climate, they are considered the staple of a heart-healthy diet. One ounce of raw almonds has about 164 calories, 14.2 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein and 3.5 grams of fiber. They are one of the richest sources of calcium among all nut choices. They are also a good source of iron.


Pistachio nuts are heart winners too

A 2008 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition identified pistachio nuts benefits in reducing coronary vascular disease, specifically helping to reduce lipid levels. Effects were dose related, meaning that subjects had to consume a certain amount (two servings) in order to see the heart health benefits. One ounce of shelled unprocessed pistachio nuts has about 162 calories, 13 grams of fat, 6 grams of protein, 2.9 grams of fiber, and rich in vitamin A, folate, potassium and magnesium.


Peanuts (legumes) are heart-healthy too

Peanuts, which are really legumes, are considered cousins to the nut category. Studies have included peanuts as uniquely helpful in supporting heart health and reducing overall mortality risk, especially from heart disease. The health benefits of peanuts appear to hold across racial and income differences, variables that often influence health outcomes. One ounce of raw peanuts has 159 calories, 13 grams of fat, 7.2 grams of protein, and 2.4 grams of fiber. They are rich in choline and folate.


Pecans get the American HeartCheck mark

Tree nuts include almonds, walnuts and pecans. A 2001 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that a diet that includes regular consumption of pecans helps to improve the serum lipid profile of men and women by helping to inhibit unwanted oxidation of lipids thereby preventing coronary heart disease. One ounce of pecans has about 196 calories, 20 grams of fat, 2.6 grams of protein, and 2.7 grams of fiber. Pecans, rich in vitamin E, also contain vitamin K which limits arterial calcifications.


Let’s not forget seeds

Cashews, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts and macadamia nuts are also sources of heart-healthy nutrition. Seeds contain fiber, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and antioxidants. They can help to reduce blood pressure and cholesterol. You may not know it but the category of seeds includes whole grains, tree nuts and peanuts, pulses, cocoa and cocoa products like chocolate (dark) and coffee. Seeds have sizable amounts of plant sterols and bioactive compounds that support health.


Edible seeds are packed with heart-healthy goods

Grains like wheat, rye, barley, and millet when consumed in their most unprocessed form are incredibly nutrient-dense. Pulses are seeds of leguminous plants and the most popular edible ones are lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and dried beans like pinto, kidney, navy and fava beans. It’s already been established that the number one source of antioxidant in America is coffee, so despite some concerns about the safety of consumption, it has clear health benefits. Focus on seed variety.

Serving paper pie chart off of plate.

Watch portion sizes even with healthy foods

As much as 80 percent of a nut is fat. A serving size is roughly equivalent to about a handful of nuts or seeds, or two tablespoons of unprocessed nut butter. Identify how many calories you should consume daily for weight loss or weight maintenance and eat nutrient-dense plant based proteins and other non-meat proteins to replace meat. Love meat? Then stick with lean cuts, skinless poultry and simply reduce frequency of consumption. Consider meats “treats” not diet staples and do your heart good.

Amy Hendel, P.A.
Meet Our Writer
Amy Hendel, P.A.

Known as "The HealthGal", Amy Hendel P.A. is a medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, health coach and brand ambassador. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, find her on Twitter @Healthgal1103 and on Facebook @TheHealthGal. Check “Daily Health News” at healthgal.com. Her personal mantra? “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”