Nuts For Your Health
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | April 6, 2004

Most people avoid eating nuts because they're high in fat. Maybe their healthcare professional told them to avoid fat, and nuts fall into that category of high-fat foods. In general, that's good advice. The typical almond or walnut, even dry roasted, is still 80-85% fat. But recent research and a decision by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may change opinions of how good nuts are for health. Specifically, eating nuts such as walnuts and almonds on a regular basis may be a way to reduce cardiovascular disease and even promote weight loss. Hard to believe? Here's what the research says.

Low-calorie diets are used by many people to lose weight. The typical low-calorie diet uses food bars and shakes for part of the total food intake. Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are used to complement the meal replacements.

Recent research compared the typical low-calorie diet approach with one that replaced complex carbohydrates with almonds (1). After 24 weeks, the group using nuts lost more weight, more inches, and had a greater reduction in systolic blood pressure. Those subjects eating nuts also had a reduction in the use of diabetic medications. To be fair, the complex-carbohydrate group also experienced an improvement in all health parameters measured, including an increase in HDL cholesterol, the "good" cholesterol. But the success of the group that ate almonds was surprising because the almonds increased the percentage of fat in their diet to 39%, nearly twice the percentage of fat for the other group.

In another study, walnuts were included in a diet given to a group of subjects with high cholesterol levels (2). The subjects were encouraged to eat a Mediterranean diet with one group utilizing walnuts as their primary source of fat. When the subjects ate walnuts for four weeks, they improved the ability of their arteries to dilate--important for improved cardiac function. There was also a significant decrease in their total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol levels.

This and other studies have provided the FDA with enough scientific evidence to allow the following claim for walnuts:

Supportive but not conclusive research shows that eating 1.5 ounce of walnuts per day, as part of a low saturated fat and low cholesterol diet, and not resulting in increased caloric intake, may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

So what does this mean for you? Should you go out and start eating nuts like a squirrel getting ready for winter? Not exactly. Here are some important points:
  • The subjects ate less. Each of the studies stressed the reduction in total calories, especially from saturated fat. The calories from nuts represented 180 to 250 calories per day. That means they cut out other foods--especially high-fat foods and refined carbohydrates.

  • The subjects ate better quality food. They replaced poor quality food--especially saturated fat--with something better, such as the monounsaturated fat in almonds or the omega-3 fatty acids in walnuts.

  • The quantities of nuts eaten are specific, about 1-1.5 ounces a day. That translates to about 14-19 walnut halves or 22-33 almonds per day--not handfuls of nuts whenever you want.
What these studies illustrate is that when added to a sensible eating plan, high-quality nuts such as almonds and walnuts can have health benefits beyond what might be expected from simply eating less.

If you want a simple way to incorporate nuts into your meal plans, try our new program called 30 Day Plan. The meal plans allow you to add the fats of your choice, and you could easily incorporate almonds and walnuts in a way that will not increase your daily caloric intake above what's necessary to lose weight.

References:

  1. Wien MA, et al. Almonds vs. complex carbohydrates in a weight reduction program. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 2003; 27(11):1365-72.

  2. Ros E, et al. A Walnut Diet Improves Endothelial Function in Hypercholesterolemic Subjects. A Randomized Crossover Trial. Circulation. 2004; 109:1609-1614.
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