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Heart Health, Explained

Diet: Eating Nuts and Cardiovascular Disease

Several studies suggest that eating a healthy diet that includes regular servings of nuts lowers risk of cardiovascular disease. An observational study published in The New England Journal of Medicine and reported November 20, 2013 by NBC News examined nut consumption and mortality in nearly 119,000 women and men over 30 years – and found that people who ate a handful of nuts daily were 20 percent less likely to die from cardiovascular disease, cancer, respiratory disease and other illnesses.

Eating Nuts Q&A

Q: What is in nuts that may account for their life-prolonging properties?

A: Nuts contain several important nutrients that are linked to health benefits, including unsaturated fat and plant sterols that may help lower levels of “bad” cholesterol or LDL-cholesterol. Nuts are a good source of an amino acid called L-arginine, which can help maintain healthy blood vessels and decrease the risk of blood clots. Some nuts, including walnuts and cashews, contain omega 3 fatty acids, which may reduce inflammation and abnormal heart rhythms. Nuts are also a good source of many vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, including, folate, Vitamin E and magnesium. Compared to other foods, nuts have high amounts of calcium, magnesium, and potassium. Moreover, the sodium content of raw or roasted but otherwise unprocessed nuts is very low. A high intake of calcium, magnesium and potassium, together with a low sodium intake, is associated with protection against bone loss, high blood pressure, diabetes, and lower overall cardiovascular risk. To obtain the fullest nutritional value, eat nuts that are raw, as roasting nuts reduces the quality of their antioxidants. Because nuts are low in carbohydrates, they are a good source of nutrients for people with diabetes. Nuts are also gluten-free, making them a good choice for individuals with gluten sensitivity.

Q: Isn't there a possibility of gaining weight from eating nuts?

A: The question of whether increasing the amount of nuts in your diet - and thus increasing calorie intake – might lead to unwanted weight gain and related health problems is an important one. Contrary to what many people may suspect, studies suggest that eating nuts regularly is unlikely to contribute to obesity. People who eat nuts regularly are leaner, more physically active and often do not smoke. Nuts are high in calories, but can actually help with weight loss. This is because nuts are an excellent source of unsaturated fat, fiber and protein, which are digested slowly and promote a feeling of fullness. A small serving of nuts can be a very satisfying snack and a great alternative to chips. However, a one-ounce serving of nuts contains 160-200 calories, so portion control is important. Consider adding a few nuts to oatmeal, yogurt, salads or stir-fry meals to add flavor and texture without adding too many calories.

Q: Peanuts aren’t really nuts – they’re legumes – but if I eat peanuts and peanut butter regularly can I lower my risk for cardiovascular disease and death? Are there different effects for women and men of changing their diet?

A: Peanuts are legumes, but they provide the same health benefits as tree nuts with similar nutrients. Peanuts and peanut butter are healthy additions to your diet as long as they are consumed in moderation. Peanuts contain antioxidants, B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, protein and unsaturated fat. Research suggests that moderate amounts of peanuts and peanut butter, just like tree nuts, can help with weight loss and reduce cardiovascular risk. The health benefits from tree nuts and peanuts are similar for both men and women. Peanuts, like tree nuts, are an important source of unsaturated fat and high-quality vegetable protein for both men and women – who do not have a food allergy to nuts. Overall, a healthy diet regularly includes vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, whole grains, lean protein sources and low-fat dairy products.

Resource: “Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality,” New England Journal of Medicine, November 21, 2013

HEALTH NEWS IN PERSPECTIVE

Answers to your questions on timely topics in cardiac care to help make sense of research reports in the media. The series includes questions on your heart and the effect of medications, exercise, diet, and hormones.

Team Specialist

Joann Schaumburg, MS, RD, LD
 Clinical dietitian - McConnell Heart Health Center OhioHealth Healthcare System, Columbus, Ohio

Q&A Editor

Teresa Caulin-Glaser, MD, FACC, FAACVPR System Vice President, Heart & Vascular Services OhioHealth Healthcare System, Columbus, Ohio

Heart Health Explained is a collaboration of Women’s Health Research at Yale and the OhioHealth Healthcare System, a nationally recognized not-for-profit organization with providers across 46 counties, offering a holistic approach to prevention, treatment and rehabilitation of heart disease. OhioHealth is staffed by physicians, psychologists, nutritionists and nurses who answer the questions of the moment on heart and vascular health.

The information provided here may help you make more informed choices. However, it is not a substitute for an individualized medical opinion or diagnosis, and everyone should always consult with their personal physicians to make decisions about their condition or treatment.