Chips, cookies and crackers. When we think of snacks, unhealthy options are often the first to come to mind. In fact, the word “snack” has acquired a bad taint – even though most people overcome their guilt and snack a lot anyway.
Yet some snacks are good for your health. When it comes to the one I have in mind today, eating it often – in hefty amounts — reduces the risk from America’s main cause of death – cardiovascular disease (CVD).
CVD is familiar to most of us as heart attack or stroke, but the term covers a wide spectrum of other diseases. So a group of researchers from Sweden decided to look more closely. What particular heart conditions are we protected from when we eat nuts?
Improves Heart Health in Multiple Ways
For the study, which was just published in the British Medical Journal’s periodical Heart, the Swedish team enrolled 61,364 men and women aged between 45 and 83. Each had to fill out a Food Frequency Questionnaire. The participants were followed up after 17 years or at death if this came earlier.
The researchers assessed seven forms of CVD: myocardial infarction (heart attack), heart failure (weak pumping action), atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat), aortic valve stenosis (valve narrows causing the heart to overwork), abdominal aortic aneurism (blood vessel swelling), ischemic stroke (blood clot), intracerebral hemorrhage (stroke caused by bleeding, i.e. hemorrhagic stroke).
After taking into account multiple factors that influence cardiovascular health such as age, gender, family history, diabetes, smoking, alcohol, exercise, overall diet and lifestyle, the researchers found that nut consumption appeared to protect people from two of the seven conditions – atrial fibrillation and heart failure. Together, these affect around ten million Americans.
Compared to people who don’t snack on nuts, those who indulge in this treat one to three times a month had a 3% lower risk of atrial fibrillation. This jumped to 12% for one or two nut snacks a week and 18% for three or more times a week. The corresponding figures for heart failure risk-reductions were 13%, 20%
The researchers concluded that since only a small percentage of the participants ate nuts to any extent, “even a small increase in nut consumption may have large potential to lead to a reduction in incidence of atrial fibrillation and heart failure…”
Many reasons were proposed for the health benefits. They were described as rich sources of unsaturated fatty acids, protein, fiber, folic acid, vitamin E, minerals (such as magnesium, potassium and zinc), and other compounds found in plants like phenolics and phytosterols.
Nuts improve levels of blood fats, reduce blood sugar, positively influence the lining of blood vessels, and have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
Does it matter which type of nut we eat? Keep reading. . .
“Natural Health Capsules”
Harvard researchers gathered information from over 200,000 health professionals over a period of 32 years in a study published in November, 2017.
They looked at total nut, walnut, peanut and peanut butter consumption in relation to the risk of cardiovascular disease in general as well as coronary heart disease (CHD) and stroke in particular.
Compared to medics who never or hardly ever ate nuts, the researchers found those eating a single ounce of walnuts one or more times a week reduced the risk of CVD by 19% and CHD by 21%.
Consuming the same amount of peanuts (which are actually legumes, not nuts) twice a week or more, the respective figures came to 13% and 15%. For those eating tree nuts (all other nuts besides peanuts) the figures were 15% and 23%.
Peanut butter had no protective qualities, and only peanuts and walnuts were a safeguard against stroke.
The key message from this study seems to be that all nuts are great to eat but there may be an additional advantage in consuming walnuts.
Confirms What I’ve Said For Years
This doesn’t surprise me. Previous research I’ve reviewed over the last 15 years showed that walnuts are among the healthiest nuts. And most of the other tree nuts are about as good – cashews, almonds, Brazil nuts, even pecans. On the other hand, I’m surprised peanuts, a “faux nut,” had many benefits at all.
Most likely the reason peanut butter has no benefits is that the conventional kind usually contains sugar and preservatives. Healthy nut butters (I’m thinking of cashew butter and almond butter) should be fresh ground and contain nothing but the nut.
You can get freshly ground nut butters in many health food stores and in Whole Foods stores. They’re a great way to break the butter and jam habit. They taste so good you don’t need the sugary fruit topping.
Commenting on the Harvard study in an editorial in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, where the paper was published, Dr. Emilio Ros wrote, “…raw nuts, if possible unpeeled and otherwise unprocessed, may be considered as natural health capsules that can be easily incorporated into any heart-protective diet to further cardiovascular well-being and promote healthy aging.”
I reach for nuts whenever I feel hungry but don’t feel like preparing a meal. I know I can eat as much as I want, they fill me up fast and totally satisfy, and I know I’m doing something good for my health.