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A Nutty Heart-Health Tip

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Nuts may improve specific risk factors for heart disease
As previous studies have shown, people who eat nuts as part of a healthy diet may reduce their heart disease risk. A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine supports that claim, finding that eating nuts may improve specific risk factors for heart disease by lowering the amount of fats in the blood (lipid levels) such as cholesterol and triglycerides.

Eating nuts favorable for fat levels

Heart disease risk increases significantly when a person develops high cholesterol or high triglyceride levels, so it's important to keep them in a healthy range. As it turns out, eating nuts may help achieve that goal.

The current study evaluated the data from 25 controlled trials, which included a total of 583 men and women who were not taking medication to control lipid levels. In all of the studies, nuts was the only dietary intervention, with participants eating an average of 67 grams (2.4 oz.) per day. Studies lasted from three to eight weeks, showing results such as:

  • When people ate nuts, their total cholesterol decreased 5.1% and LDL ("bad") cholesterol decreased 7.4% compared with the control group.
  • Among people whose triglyceride levels were at least 150 mg/dL, triglyceride levels decreased 10.2% in people who ate nuts compared with the control group.
  • The lipid-lowering effects of eating nuts were most significant among people who had a high-LDL-cholesterol level at the beginning of the study, a low body mass index, and who ate a Western diet.
  • Many types of nuts--including walnuts, almonds, pistachios, and hazelnuts--were equally beneficial in improving lipid levels.

"Nuts are a whole food that have been consumed by humans throughout history," said lead study author Joan Sabate, MD, DrPH, and her colleagues from Loma Linda University, California. "Increasing the consumption of nuts as part of an otherwise prudent diet can be expected to favorably affect blood lipid levels (at least in the short term) and have the potential to lower [coronary heart disease] risk."

The health benefits of nuts

Nuts have a number of properties that make them beneficial for our health.

  • Rich in nutrients. Nuts contain healthy nutrients such as a variety of minerals and vitamins, and they are rich in fiber and protein.
  • Contain "good" fats. Nuts are a source of healthy unsaturated fats which have been shown to help lower lipids.
  • Contain plant sterols. Nuts contain specific phytochemicals known as plant sterols, which may have lipid-lowering effects.
  • Good for health. In addition to lipid-lowering effects, nuts also improve vascular function and lower oxidative stress--all of which may decrease heart disease risk and help prevent other types of vascular disease. According to the study authors, eating nuts may also help lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

(Arch Intern Med 2010;170:821-7.)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, websites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.