Can nuts reduce your risks of heart disease?

acornsOne third of North Americans may have high blood cholesterol levels. This of course puts them at an increased risk for heart disease, the number one killer in North America. But cholesterol can be reduced by paying attention to the diet. Cutting way back on fat intake can certainly lower it, but this may not be necessary. Not all fats are equally culpable in boosting blood cholesterol levels. Saturated fats, found in meat and dairy products as well as in palm and coconut oil can do it, as can the “trans fatty acids” that lurk in a variety of processed foods. On the other hand, some unsaturated fats have been shown to reduce cholesterol levels, particularly the LDL variety. This is commonly referred to as “bad cholesterol” because it leads to deposits forming in coronary arteries. And interestingly enough, even small amounts of the right unsaturated fats can have an impact. A recent study in the journal Circulation claims that eating two handfuls of almonds every day can reduce LDL!

Subjects who ate 74 g of almonds every day saw a roughly 7% per cent reduction in their LDL. This reduction can cut the risk of cardio-vascular diseases by as much as 20%. When combined with increased intake of other healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, LDL can be reduced by as much as 25 per cent, according to Dr. David Jenkins, director of clinical nutrition at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “You’re getting toward what one gets with drug therapy,” Dr. Jenkins says.

Nuts are also a good source of magnesium, copper, zinc, fiber, folic acid, vitamin E and arginine – an amino acid that keeps the arteries supple. They are of course rich in calories so overweight people do have to watch their intake. But in the study reported in Circulation, almond eaters did not gain weight. “When people ate the nuts, they had a satiety effect, so they cut down on other foods,” says Cyril W.C. Kendall, author of the study.

Other nuts, such as pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts (peanuts are actually legumes not nuts), cashews, Brazil nuts, chestnuts and macadamia should have the same beneficial properties as almonds since they have similar fat profiles. Coconuts and palm nuts are the noteworthy exceptions. The beneficial properties of nuts are compromised if they are sugared, salted or roasted in oil. The best choices are raw or baked, unsalted nuts. But nuts should not just be added to the diet, they should be used to replace some of the carbohydrates (bread, pasta, potatoes) and meat products which many people consume in excess. It sure makes more sense to have a handful of nuts as a snack instead of a bag of chips or a candy bar!

The study was funded by  The Almond Board of California and the Canadian government.

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