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Say Nuts to Heart Disease

Adding nuts to your diet may reduce the risk of heart disease

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Updated October 24, 2013

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Evidence continues to accumulate that eating nuts is healthy for your heart.

Several studies conducted over the years have strongly suggested that eating an ounce of nuts four or five times a week can significantly reduce your risk of coronary artery disease - by as much as 40%. (With most nuts, an ounce is between three and four tablespoons.)

In fact, by 2003, the accumulated data was compelling enough that the FDA issued a formal statement saying that eating certain specific nuts -— almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and peanuts -- could reduce the risk of heart disease.

More recently, investigators from Loma Linda University published a meta-analysis of 25 studies which looked at nut consumption and blood lipid levels. They found that men and women who ate roughly two ounces of nuts per day significantly reduced their LDL cholesterol levels, by an average of about 10 mg/Dl.

There are several other reasons nuts may be useful in protecting from coronary artery disease. In addition to unsaturated fats and plant fiber (both of which may be responsible for the reduction of LDL), nuts also contain arginine, a precursor to nitric oxide, which is a substance made in the walls of blood vessels that relaxes the blood vessels and prevents clotting. And some nuts -- especially walnuts -- contain alpha-linolenic acid, a precursor to omega-3 fatty acid, which helps protect against heart disease.

The question often arises as to whether the same benefits are seen with peanuts, which are technically legumes, not nuts. The answer is, simply, yes. Peanuts contain the same beneficial stuff as "real" nuts, and have been associated with the same cardiovascular benefits.

Precautions:

Nothing is free in this world. While nuts may be good for you, they have some drawbacks that should be taken into account:
  • Nuts are loaded with calories. A handful of nuts contains about 150 calories. So, while they should be included in a heart-healthy diet, they shouldn't just be added, they should be substituted for another source of calories. Otherwise, the benefits might be negated by your expanding waistline.
     
  • Nuts with a sugary coating add even more calories to your diet.
     
  • Salted nuts may cause problems with your blood pressure.
     
  • Brazil nuts contain a relatively large amount of saturated fats, and should not be selectively added to the diet.

How to add nuts to your diet sensibly:

  • Plain nuts are best -- not coated in anything, and not salted.
     
  • To avoid nut-induced weight gain, substitute nuts for something else. Good candidates for foods you can profitably displace from your diet with a tablespoon or two of nuts are: potato chips, butter, candy, ice cream, and any processed food (most of which are loaded with bad fats of one type or another).
     
  • Add some nuts to your salad, pasta dishes, and fish dishes.
     
  • Choosing cereals that contain nuts makes sense, but make sure the cereal isn't clogged up with saturated fats or trans fatty acids, as much processed cereal is. As always, read the labels.

A final word of wisdom:

Just because nuts and alcohol (in small amounts) may be good for the heart, it does not necessarily follow that the ideal food is beer nuts.

Sources:

Food and Drug Administration. Qualified health claims: Letter of enforcement discretion—Nuts and coronary heart disease (Docket No 02P-0505). 2003. Available at http://www.fda.gov/.

Sabaté J, Oda K, Ros E. Nut consumption and blood lipid levels. Arch Intern Med 2010; 170:821-827.

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