Eating walnuts improves health, reduces the risk of heart disease

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A new study shows that people who eat walnuts tend to have a lower risk of heart disease and healthier eating habits. Westend61/Getty Images
  • Nuts, including walnuts, are generally considered part of a healthy diet because of their high levels of protein, fiber and healthy fats.
  • Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that people who consume walnuts have a better heart disease risk profile than those who do not eat walnuts.
  • The research team also reported that people who ate walnuts ate healthier overall, gained less weight and enjoyed more physical activity compared to those who did not eat walnuts.

Nuts are generally considered part of a balanced diet due to their high levels of protein, fiber and healthy fats.

New research from the University of Minnesota focuses on one nut in particular – walnuts.

Findings show that those who include this particular nut in their diet enjoy certain health benefits, including less gaining weighta higher thanapersonal dietand better risk of heart disease profile.

This study, which was partially funded by the California Walnut Commission, was recently published in the journal Nutrition, metabolism and cardiovascular disease.

Although walnuts are generally considered nuts, they are technically the seed of a fruit.

Walnut trees grow drupe fruit, also called drupe. When the fruit ripens, the outside turns into a hard shell that contains the edible seed – the nut – inside.

One daily serving of walnuts is equivalent to 1 ounce, 1/4 cup, or 12-14 walnut halves and has a nutritional breakdown of:

  • 190 calories
  • 18 grams of fat (including 13 grams of polyunsaturated fat)
  • 4 grams of carbohydrates
  • 4 grams of protein
  • 2 grams of dietary fiber
  • 1 gram of sugar
  • No sodium or cholesterol

According to Lauren Pelehach Sepe, a clinical nutritionist at the Kellman Wellness Center in New York, New York, walnuts are one of the healthiest nuts you can eat.

“They are rich in healthy fats, antioxidants, as well as several essential minerals,” she explained to Medical News Today. “Given their beneficial nutritional profile, walnuts are an important part of a healthy diet as they provide a number of important health benefits.”

Sepe said walnuts offer more health benefits than other nuts because they contain the highest amount of omega-3 fatty acids — also known as n-3 fatty acids — of any nut.

“Omega-3 fatty acids are naturally anti-inflammatory. They have also been shown to decrease triglyceride levels and reduce plate trainingwhich is one mechanism by which they reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

– Lauren Pelehach Sepe, Clinical Dietitian

Seppe also cites a 2019 study showing that walnuts help provide cardiovascular benefits due to their effects on intestinal microbiota.

“A healthy gut microbiome is associated with reduced levels of inflammation, which reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, as well as improving your lipid profile, reduces the risk of metabolic diseaseas well as many other health benefits,” she added.

For the current study, senior author Lynn Steffen, PhD, MPH, professor of epidemiology and public health at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, said the main goal was to determine whether walnut consumers had a better diet and better cardiovascular risk factor profile over 30 years of follow-up, compared to those who did not eat walnuts.

For this observational study, Dr. Steffen and her team used findings from the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study, which began in 1985-1986 with a group of more than 5,000 Caucasian and black men and women aged 18 to 30 years old and continues today.

The research team examined data on 3,023 CARDIA participants, which included 352 walnut eaters, 2,494 other nut eaters, and 177 nut eaters.

After examining physical and clinical measurements over 30 years, researchers found that people who ate walnuts showed a better heart disease risk profile, including:

The researchers also found that people who consumed walnuts ate healthier overall, gained less weight, tested with lower fasting blood sugar concentration and self-reported more physical activity.

Dr Steffen said the findings were not surprising as walnuts are an excellent source of plant-based n-3 fatty acids, specifically alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and other antioxidants.

“Other nuts are also nutritious and contain fatty acids and antioxidants, but other types of nuts do not contain ALA, a plant-based n-3 fatty acid,” she explained to MNT.

“I have been reading about the health benefits of walnuts for many years – I wanted to see if walnut consumption would be favorably associated with CVD [cardiovascular disease] health profiles in the CARDIA population.

“I wrote another paper on walnut consumption related to cardiac phenotypes—that is, systolic and diastolic function—using data from the CARDIA study. Although the heart function parameters of the adults were within normal limits, the adults who consumed walnuts had better values.

– Lynn Steffen, PhD, MPH, lead author of the study

According to Sepe, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how many walnuts a person should eat per day to reap the health benefits cited in the study.

Still, she suggested that 1 ounce a day, which is about seven walnuts or 14 walnut halves, could provide benefits.

“They’re easy to add to your daily diet, or you can have a larger portion a few times a week,” she explained. “The goal isn’t so much a specific number, but to start incorporating these and other nutrient-dense foods into your diet on a daily basis to ensure maximum benefits.”

As for the next steps in this research, Sepe said she would like to see more research looking at all the mechanisms by which walnuts provide health benefits, namely their effects on the gut.

“This could lead not only to a better understanding of how walnuts can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, but also other health conditions,” she added.

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