Eating almonds on a regular basis may help boost levels of the good (HDL) cholesterol while simultaneously improving the way it removes cholesterol from the body. According to researchers, who, in a recent study, compared the levels and function of high–density lipoprotein (HDL cholesterol) in people who ate almonds every day, to comparable levels of the same group of people when they ate a muffin instead. The researchers found that while participants were on the almond diet, their HDL levels and functionality improved. The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, builds on previous research on the effects of almonds on cholesterol–lowering diets. The researchers wanted to see if almonds could not just increase the HDL levels but also improve the function of this component, which works by gathering cholesterol from tissues, like the arteries, and helping to transport it out of the body.
HDL is very small when it gets released into circulation, and acts like a garbage bag that slowly gets bigger and more spherical as it gathers cholesterol from cells and tissues before depositing them in the liver to be broken down.
Depending on how much cholesterol it has collected, HDL cholesterol is categorized into various subpopulations, which range from the very small to the larger, more mature forms. The researchers hoped that eating almonds would result in more larger particles, which would signal improved HDL function.
In a controlled–feeding study, 48 men and women with elevated LDL cholesterol participated in two six–week diet periods. In both, their diets were identical except for the daily snack. On the almond diet, participants received 43 grams — about a handful — of almonds a day. During the control period, they received a banana muffin instead. The researchers found that, compared to the control diet, the almond diet increased HDL particles to their largest size and most mature stage — by 19 percent. They were able to show that there were more larger particles in response to consuming the almonds compared to not consuming almonds, which would translate to the smaller particles doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re going to tissues and pulling out cholesterol, getting bigger, and taking that cholesterol to the liver for removal from the body. An increase in this particular HDL subpopulation is meaningful, because the particles have been shown to decrease overall risk of cardiovascular disease.
If people incorporate almonds into their diet, they should expect multiple benefits, including ones that can improve heart health. Obviously, they’re not a cure–all, but when eaten in moderation – and especially when eaten instead of a food of lower nutritional value – they’re a great addition to an already healthy diet. Other nuts may provide similar benefits, but they have not been studied in this fashion. Nevertheless, they may provide other benefits as well, such as in cancer prevention, as we present below.
A recent study showed that nut and peanut butter consumption can reduce the risk of esophageal and gastric cancer. Previous studies had suggested that nut consumption has been associated with decreased risk of colorectal, endometrial, lung, and pancreatic cancers. Polyphenols, fiber, vitamins, and minerals in nuts may confer this observed protective effect. Up to now, no prospective study has evaluated the effect of nut consumption on esophageal and gastric cancers. The objective was to evaluate the associations between nut and peanut butter consumption and the risk of esophageal and gastric cancers and their different subtypes. The most recent study used data from the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which enrolled 566,407 persons who were 50–71 years old at baseline (1995–1996). The median follow-up time was 15.5 years. Intakes of nuts and peanut butter were assessed through the use of a validated food-frequency questionnaire. Statistical models estimated risks for esophageal and gastric cancers. Compared with those who did not consume nuts or peanut butter [lowest category of consumption], participants in the highest category of nut consumption had a lower risk of developing the most common type of stomach cancer The same association was also seen for peanut butter consumption.
This information is added to what we already know about nuts in general. Almost all nuts provide good sources of caloric energy, primarily from unsaturated fats (oils), they are useful also for lowering cholesterol. Moreover, the essential amino acids contained in nuts are vital for constructing protein, i.e., the building blocks for our muscles and other tissues. Although each type of nut does not supply, in itself, a complete source of these amino acids, consuming a variety of nuts will provide a complete complement of the various necessary (essential) components. Other nutritional elements provided by nuts include folic acid, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. Especially noteworthy is their uniformly low sodium content, a highly desirable feature (provided that no salt is added). They also contain polyphenols, bioactive constituents that seem to be beneficial to heart health that extends beyond other dietary constituents.
During the past 20 years, mounting evidence indicates that consuming all nuts (including peanuts and peanut butter) at least twice weekly provides substantial protection from cardiovascular disease and overall death rates as compared to those consuming them only rarely or not at all. These desirable results seem to share the stage with almonds, as noted above, primarily through the rearranging of cholesterol components, and despite a substantial caloric content, nuts have less tendency to promote obesity, probably because of their prominent satiating effect. For unknown reasons, nuts also appear to prevent diabetes, another contributor to cardiovascular disease. Research studies have also indicated that, if the “Mediterranean” diet, which, in itself is healthy, is supplemented by extra mixed nuts (one ounce daily) and extra virgin olive oil (one quart total per week), substantial additional reductions of cardiovascular disease and stroke can be accomplished.
The bottom line? Forget the junk food and opt for any kind of nuts, whether with meals or as free-standing snacks!