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Research Finds Nuts Can Help Prevent Diseases

New nutrition research is building on the supporting role of nuts in helping to prevent diseases, especially cardiovascular disease.

By Mark Anthony, Ph.D., Technical Editor

As the tide turns against unqualified fear of dietary fats, based on both new and more comprehensive reviews of the science, nuts are regaining their well-deserved status as a true health food. Long appreciated as excellent sources of plant proteins, nuts also are quintessential sources of healthy fats. Today’s processors may include nuts in a food or beverage product without fear of it losing its valuable “health halo.”

Collectively, nuts tend to be rich in omega-9, the dominant fatty acid in olive oil, plus generous amounts of the essential omega-6 and even omega-3 fatty acids. Most nuts are good sources of fiber, calcium, magnesium, selenium (unusual for its antioxidant capacity) and other minerals, plus vitamins — especially B vitamins — and antioxidant phytochemicals.

Although the term “nut” generally is associated with tree nuts, such as walnuts and almonds, peanuts — botanically classified as legumes — have a similar nutrient composition to nuts and have been included as nuts in hundreds of epidemiologic studies examining the association of nuts with reduced risks of diseases, including, cardiovascular disease as well as weight and energy control.

Evidence is accumulating through study after study that consumption of a moderate amount of nuts daily could benefit the cardiovascular system, as well as one’s overall health. Epidemiological evidence has revealed a positive association between nut consumption and the reduction of physiological risk factors of cardiovascular disease, such as inflammation, oxidative stress, endothelial dysfunction (believed to be the starting point of atherosclerosis), hypertension and type-2 diabetes.

Meanwhile, despite a comparatively high fat content to other plant foods, nuts’ nutrient density and satiety value make them compatible with safe weight loss and weight control strategies. Specific studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of incorporating walnuts (good plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids), almonds (rich sources of calcium) and pistachios (especially high in vitamin B6) into formulations.

A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition uncovered greater confirmation of an inverse relationship between nut consumption and cardiovascular disease mortality. The subjects were American male physicians participating in The Physicians Health Study. These results were consistent with findings from the Nurses’ Health Study, an ongoing, multi-decade study of 76,464 women, and the Health Professionals Follow-up Study, another long-term study that includes 42,498 men. In these studies, nut consumption was associated with reduced incidents of all-cause mortality, deaths from cancer and deaths from heart disease.

The subjects of the above epidemiological studies were health professionals, a parameter that also implies a higher socioeconomic status and has been subjected to criticism in the past for that reason. But a recent study, “Prospective Evaluation of the Association of Nut/Peanut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality,” reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, had been designed to evaluate the results of nut consumption in a demographic with lower economic status.

Three populations were used in the analysis: one from the U.S., and two from Shanghai, China. The first, called the Southern Community Cohort Study, consisted of 71,764 U.S. residents of African and European descent. This study ran from March 2002 to September 2009. The second, the Shanghai Women’s Health Study (SWHS), was conducted between December 1996 and May 2000. The third, called the Shanghai Men’s Health Study (SMHS), with 134,265 participants, ran from January 2002 to September 2006.

In the SCCS, approximately 50 percent of the nuts used were peanuts. However in the studies from Shanghai, participants reported nut consumption as peanuts alone. In the prospective analysis of those three studies, high nut consumption was associated with a reduced risk of total mortality and death from CVD. Importantly, the results were independent of other risk factors for heart disease.

For example, 75 percent of participants were either overweight, obese or even morbidly obese. Fifty-five percent suffered from hypertension. Twenty-one percent were diabetic and 34 percent reported high cholesterol values going into the study.

The results of the Prospective Evaluation show that there is an apparent cardiovascular protection value to nut consumption associated with a variety of demographics and income levels. Also, peanuts, an ingredient generally more affordable to processors and therefore to low-income groups compared to many tree nuts, are shown to share the same protective associations. Thus processors can safely assume the gates have opened to make more comprehensive use of nuts, nut butters and nut-derived ingredients in foods and beverages targeting health and well being.