A new study has found that a diet heavy in meat protein is associated with a sharp increase in risk for heart disease. In contrast, protein from plant-based sources such as nuts and seeds was linked to a dramatic decrease in risk.

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, was a joint effort between researchers at Loma Linda University Adventist Health Sciences Center in California, France’s AgroParisTech, and the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique. Data was collected from more than 81,000 participants.

Science News notes that this is one of the few times a study has examined the effects that animal fat and protein have on health compared to nuts and seeds. Prior to this, similar studies have looked at the fat in meat or nuts and seeds as “casual agents” in heart health. According to Gary Fraser, the co-principal investigator from Loma Linda University, “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.”

Vegan Protein From Nuts and Seeds Healthier Than Meat, Study Finds
Fraser added that he and his colleagues have “long suspected” that plant-based protein from nuts and seeds protects against heart disease while red meat has the opposite effect. The study confirmed this. Participants who consumed large amounts of meat protein experienced a sharp, 60 percent increase in risk for heart disease while those who ate large amounts of protein from nuts and seeds experienced a 40 percent reduction in risk.

Fraser added that nutritionists have traditionally looked toward what he termed “bad fats” in meats and “helpful fats” in nuts and seeds as causal agents. However, these new findings suggest more. “This new evidence suggests that the full picture [of risk of heart disease] probably also involves the biological effects of proteins in these foods,” Fraser said.

This is not the first study where the link between an increased risk of heart disease and red meat has made itself apparent. A study published in the Nature Reviews Cardiology journal earlier this year found that eating processed meats, combined with other lifestyle-related factors, can lead to an increased risk factor of heart disease in young people ages 18-45. Another study showed that replacing just one or two servings of animal-based protein with high-quality plant-based protein can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Loma Linda University, where half of the research was carried out, is a Seventh-Day Adventist University. Seventh-Day Adventists are a sect of Christianity where many members are vegetarian or vegan. Past studies of Seventh-Day Adventists have shown a dramatically decreased risk of heart disease in those who followed a vegetarian diet.