Fats are generally considered bad for heart health. But could certain fats actually help prevent disease? A recent review article by experts at SUNY Upstate Medical University discusses the potential benefits of consuming nuts for heart health, particularly as a partial replacement for sugars and saturated fats from meat and dairy foods. Although nearly 80 per cent of the energy in nuts derives from fat, the fats they contain are mainly monosaturated. Nuts are consumed in significant quantities in the Mediterranean diet, the authors explain, a diet which is linked to improved heart health.
The basis for the health benefits of nuts may be their effects on serum lipids - fats circulating in the blood. Macadamia nuts, for example, contain plant sterols which are believed to improve serum lipids. In one study, a diet high in macadamia nuts improved cholesterol levels compared with the typical American diet, and benefited serum lipids more than an American Heart Association diet in both healthy volunteers and those with elevated cholesterol.
The authors give details of further cholesterol and serum lipid-reducing effects in studies on walnuts, almonds, pecans and pistachio nuts. Billions of dollars each year are spent on lipid-lowering medications such as statin drugs, the authors write, and often these medications do not achieve target levels. Use of these drugs is likely to increase over time. However, by substituting nuts into the diet, their favourable effect on lipids may act as a useful addition to treatment. One ounce per day of nuts may be sufficient to lower fatal heart disease risk by 30-45 per cent, depending on the food they replace. The authors conclude that, in an era of rapidly increasing medical costs, concerns over drug safety, and “low-fat” or “low-carb” fad diets, it is reassuring to know that eating nuts on a regular basis benefits heart health.
Nash, S.D. and Westpfal, M. Cardiovascular benefits of nuts. American Journal of Cardiology, Vol. 95, April 2005, pp. 963-65