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Nuts for heart healthy diets

Part of a balanced heart-healthy diet

A not so nutty way of preventing heart disease plus the benefits of almonds, cashews, and other nuts

If you're nutty about nuts (like I am) then you'll be pleased to hear that studies have discovered that consumption of them can be beneficial to your heart health.

Eating them can lower the low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or "bad," cholesterol level in the blood. Having high LDL cholesterol is one of the risk factors for heart disease, so the ability to lower it is a positive thing.

As well, eating them can reduce your risk of developing blood clots that can cause a fatal heart attack and can contribute to improved health of the lining of your arteries. And, contrary to popular belief, they may even help you control your weight. Read on!

What the studies are showing

Data from the Harvard Nurses' Health Study shows that substituting peanuts and nuts for saturated fat or refined carbohydrates can reduce risk of heart disease by 45 and 30 percent, respectively. It also found that women who consumed more than five ounces of them a week lowered their risk of heart disease by 35%, compared with women who rarely ate them. And another study done at Harvard's School of Public Health found that eating them at least twice a week reduced the risk of having a second heart attack by 25% among 4,000 people.

According to the Peanut Institute, a large body of epidemiological and clinical studies show a 25-50 percent reduction in the risk of heart disease when 1 to 2 ounces of peanuts or nuts are consumed five or more times a week.

Research published in the British Journal of Nutrition (Blomhoff R, Carlsen MH), which identified several nuts among plant foods with the highest total antioxidant content, suggests their high antioxidant content may be key to their cardio-protective benefits.

In the US, the FDA now allows peanuts - along with walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, and pistachios - to be advertised as providing a health benefit.

A word to the waist

For the best nutrition, avoid honey-roasted, sugared, heavily salted, or chocolate covered varieties. Switch to unsalted instead. At first you may miss the salt or sugar but you will come to savor the unfettered flavors. We buy an unsalted assortment of cashews, almonds, brazil, hazelnuts, and pecans. Now, when I eat them salted, I don't like them - I find them too salty.

Consider buying nuts in the shell. It will take longer to eat them and as a result you may consume a smaller quantity because your brain will register that you are full.

On a positive note, eating them in moderation may create a sense of feeling full, thus actually helping to reduce your overall caloric consumption.

Are all nuts good for you?

Most appear to be generally healthy, though some more so than others. They are high in fat — up to 80 percent of their calories — but walnuts, pecans, almonds and hazelnuts, are low in saturated fat. Almonds, macadamia, hazelnuts, and pecans are others that appear to be quite heart healthy. Avoid peanuts — and other legumes.

Are you a pistachio lover?

According to data unveiled at the Experimental Biology Conference in San Diego in April, 2008, eating pistachios has been found to have a positive impact on improving cardiovascular health by significantly reducing inflammation in the body (a cardiovascular disease risk factor).

Cholesterol levels, another prominent risk factor for heart disease, also improved with pistachio consumption. Consider including pistachios as part of your heart healthy diet.

Crazy about cashews?

Cashews are a very good source of monounsaturated fats and copper, and a good source of magnesium and phosphorus. Not only do cashews have a lower fat content than most other nuts, approximately 75% of their fat is unsaturated fatty acids, plus about 75% of this unsaturated fatty acid content is oleic acid, the same heart-healthy monounsaturated fat found in olive oil.

All about almonds

According to researchers from the University of Toronto, almonds may reduce ‘bad’ cholesterol. In just two weeks, individuals following a diet of whole foods including almonds, oatmeal, soy protein and plant-sterol containing foods, had a 35% decrease in their LDL cholesterol levels. This effect was just as significant as that seen with statin medications. (Note: Don't stop taking your meds without consulting with your doctor.)

A three-month study at Loma Linda University found that when participants added just two ounces of almonds a day to their already low-saturated fat and cholesterol diet, their levels of harmful LDL cholesterol dropped even lower.

Almonds contain significant stores of antioxidants (35% of the daily recommended value for vitamin E), as well as fiber, arginine—a protein that keeps arteries elastic, and plant sterols, which help lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels while maintaining beneficial HDL levels.

Not only do almonds offer the heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, potassium, calcium, phosphorus and iron, they're also cholesterol free.

A common concern with almonds is that they are thought to contribute to weight gain. In fact, a handful of almonds (about 23) a day, can be part of a balanced diet for heart health without causing weight gain.

How about hazelnuts?

Hazelnuts supply significant amounts of protein and fiber, vitamin E, B vitamins, iron, zinc, calcium, magnesium, and potassium. They are high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that helps to lower cholesterol. Hazelnuts can help lower blood pressure because they contain minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and potassium and they contain cardioprotective arginine, an amino acid that relaxes blood vessels.

Wild about walnuts?

Walnuts are an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, a fat that is essential for our bodies, but which the body cannot produce. Walnuts are also a very good source of monounsaturated fats.

Walnuts contain many powerful antioxidants, including ellagic and gallic acids, pus antioxidant phenols and vitamin E. The minerals copper and manganese are also found in abundance in these tasty nuts.

Peckish for pecans?

Researchers from Loma Linda University (LLU) found that by adding just a few pecans to their daily diet, people may be able to reduce the risk of heart disease. The research showed that pecans appear to be capable of reducing the oxidation of fats in the blood. The group that ate pecans had lipid oxidation levels that were 7.4 percent lower than the group that ate no pecans. Blood levels of tocopherols (a form of vitamin E known to protect fats from oxidation) were also found to be higher in the group that ate pecans.

A smooth solution - Yum!

Go ahead and spread some nut butter on your toast! You can also put it on a celery stick or apple wedges for a great snack. Almond, cashew, and hazelnut butters are delicious and healthy - as long as they are not full of added sugars and chemicals. Read the labels! Make it yourself (its not difficult) or buy your almond, or cashew butters at a health food store or natural foods section of your supermarket.

The last word...

Home economist Marilyn Smith, co-author of Ultimate Foods for Ultimate Health calls nuts a hero food and reminds us to "... eat them with the skin on as the skin is an important source of flavonoids."

Remember, although the studies are showing nuts to be a heart healthy food, just adding them - without changing the rest of your diet and lifestyle to be heart healthy - won't do your heart any good.

For more details on each variety and their health benefits see The Worlds Healthiest Foods by George Mateljan.

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