I love getting protein from plant sources as much as I can. I eat two cans of beans after every workout, and I’m the first person to remind people that potatoes and oats have a surprisingly great range of amino acids. I was a vegetarian for five years and can safely say I’ve explored just about every kind of plant protein around, from amaranth to za’atar. During that period, I ravenously consumed every “Top Ten Vegan Proteins” article I could find. Every one of them had nuts. But here's the thing: Nuts—even though they're about 20 percent protein, roughly the same as meat—are a really crappy way to build muscle.
(Side note: I’m going to discuss nuts and peanuts in this story, differentiating when appropriate. We all know that peanuts are technically legumes, smart guy, but half the time people talk about nut protein they’re talking about peanut butter. Besides, for the purpose of this piece, peanuts and tree nuts are very similar in terms of macros and amino acids.)
A Primer on Amino Acids
Protein is made up of amino acids, and protein is considered more “complete” or “high quality” when it has all of the nine essential amino acids in roughly equal amounts. These are the amino acids the body can’t produce on its own and needs to obtain through food.
I’m not about to say that every time you eat protein it needs to be complete. With a few notable exceptions (like soy and quinoa), most plant-based sources of protein are incomplete, but that doesn’t make them useless. A lot of them can be great ways to build muscle because they have enough of the right amino acids.
What are really great for building muscle and stimulating muscle protein synthesis are branched chain amino acids, especially leucine. Leucine is everyone’s favorite because a ton of studies show it’s best for stimulating muscle protein synthesis and preserving muscle during fat loss. Two to five grams is generally considered a good dose for this effect. But you're not going to get that very easily from nuts, and here's why.
Nut Protein Isn’t Great Quality
A scoop of whey protein powder has about three grams of leucine. So do about 130 grams of beef or two cups of cooked kidney beans.
That’s not great if you’re eating 100 grams of nuts, but remember that a serving of nuts is only about an ounce (28 grams). That’s one handful, or two tablespoons if you’re talking butter. Meaning that an actual serving of nuts will have well under a gram of leucine.
Granted, if you’re eating 150 grams of nuts then you’ll hit a decent amount of leucine (and some 35 grams of protein overall), but that’s where we meet another hurdle with nut protein.
Nuts Are Really, Really High in Fat
Want to make sure you’re getting at least two grams of leucine? Eat at least 150 grams. Just make sure your macros are ready for the whopping seventy-five grams of fat you’ll be consuming with it. A hundred and fifty grams (or about one cup) of nuts has a solid 35-ish grams of protein, but it comes in at over eight hundred calories.
No diet plan on Earth recommends you eat eight hundred calories of nuts in a day, and not just because that’s a lot of fat. It’s also because…
Nut Fat Really Isn’t That Great, Either
Look, all kinds of fat are delicious. (Especially trans fat. Miss you, b.) And fat is a really important component of a healthy diet. It’s great for keeping your hormones healthy, your energy levels up, and your insulin sensitivity high. In some cases, like with omega-3 fatty acids, it’s been linked to significant positive effects on your cognition and your risk of depression.
But the fat found in nuts isn’t really high quality. One or two handfuls a day is still a good idea—a lot of very good studies have found that this can significantly contribute to longevity. But most of these studies focus on people who consume one or two ounces of nuts per day. If you wanted to eat enough nuts to get a good hit of leucine, you’ll be consuming a ton of fat that’s far from olive oil-level quality.
Nuts tend to have a lot of omega-6, and if you didn’t know, too much omega-6 when combined with too little omega-3 is a problem. A good ratio of omega-3 to 6 has been linked to lower cholesterol and stronger bones, while too much omega-6 has correlations with inflammation, heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
In terms of dietary intake, an ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is about 1:4 and 1:1 is even better (though practically unattainable for most of us). The average person eats closer to 1:20. The ratio in almonds is 1:1987, cashews 1:125, and peanuts have practically no omega-3 at all.
Aren't Some Nuts a Good Source of Omega-3?
No. They aren’t. Some of them have an okay amount of omega-3, with the classic example being walnuts. They have a 1:4 ratio of omega-3 to omega-6, which isn’t bad at all.
But the omega-3s in nuts sucks. They come in the form of ALA, or alpha-linolenic acid, which needs to be converted in the body to EPA or DHA, the omega-3s found in fish that are associated with all the aforementioned benefits. During the conversion process, we lose about ninety percent of them.
Get your omega-3s from seafood and grass-fed beef, or if you want to stick to plant sources get them from microalgae, which is where most fish get theirs from. Again, one or two handfuls of nuts per day definitely has health benefits. But relying on nuts for protein or for fat is a lousy way to fill your macros.