Nuts for the Heart

Variety of nutsMany people think of nuts as just another junk food snack. In reality, nuts are excellent sources of protein and other healthful nutrients.

One surprising finding from nutrition research is that people who regularly eat nuts are less likely to have heart attacks or die from heart disease than those who rarely eat them. Several of the largest cohort studies, including the Adventist Study, the Iowa Women’s Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the Physicians’ Health Study have shown a consistent 30 percent to 50 percent lower risk of myocardial infarction, sudden cardiac death, or cardiovascular disease associated with eating nuts several times a week. In fact, the FDA now allows some nuts and foods made with them to carry this claim: “Eating a diet that includes one ounce of nuts daily can reduce your risk of heart disease.”

There are several ways that nuts could have such an effect. The unsaturated fats they contain help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol and raise HDL (good) cholesterol. One group of unsaturated fat found in walnuts, the omega-3 fatty acids, appears to prevent the development of erratic heart rhythms. Omega-3 fatty acids (which are also found in fatty fish such as salmon and bluefish) may also prevent blood clots,much as aspirin does. Nuts are rich in arginine, an amino acid needed to make a molecule called nitric oxide that relaxes constricted blood vessels and eases blood flow. They also contain vitamin E, folic acid,potassium, fiber, and other healthful nutrients.

Eating nuts won’t do much good if you gobble them in addition to your usual snacks and meals. At 185 calories per ounce, a handful of walnuts a day could add 10 pounds or more in a year if you don’t cutback on something else. This weight gain would tip the scales toward heart disease, not away from it. Instead, eat nuts instead of chips or other, less healthy snacks. Or try using them instead of meat in main dishes, or as a healthful crunch in salads.

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