NUTRITION
November 26, 2013

A Handful of Nuts Daily Lowers Heart Disease and Cancer Risk

Simply eating a handful of nuts a day can cut the risk of cancer and heart attack -- by a lot.

Long live nut lovers. It's true: People who eat nuts regularly have a reduced risk of dying from heart disease, cancer, and any other cause, which translates into another health benefit that most of us are after — a longer life.

Those are the findings of a study just published in The New England Journal of Medicine. People who ate a serving of nuts daily had a significantly lower risk of heart disease. In fact, their risk was reduced by almost 30%, compared to people who ate no nuts. Every-day nut eaters were also 20% less likely to die from any cause over the course of the study than people who didn’t eat nuts regularly.

Peanuts and tree nuts — almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts — all seem to be equally beneficial.

Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital, and the Harvard School of Public Health reviewed data on nut consumptions from two studies often used to tease out trends between diet and disease risk.

One was the Nurses' Health Study, which provides information on over 76,000 women for thirty years. The other was the Health Professionals' Follow-up Study, which includes data on more than 42,000 men over 25 years.

The participants all filled out questionnaires every few years on their eating habits and other lifestyle choices. The team looked at how often people in these studies ate servings of nuts that were at least an ounce in size, roughly the amount you get in a vending machine packet of nuts.

“The most obvious benefit was a reduction of 29 percent in deaths from heart disease — the major killer of people in America,” study author Charles S. Fuchs said in a statement. “But we also saw a significant reduction — 11 percent — in the risk of dying from cancer.”

The reasons for the connections between nuts and health, cancer, and longevity aren’t totally clear, but nut consumption has been shown to lower cholesterol, which is a major player in heart disease. It’s also known to reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance, all of which could contribute to the results seen in the current study.

Even though nut eaters were also more likely than non-nut-eaters to eat healthier diets overall, to exercise, to be thinner, and not smoke — all factors that could play a role in disease and death risk, they didn't influence the results.

When these factors were removed from the equation using statistical methods, researchers still found a strong link between nut consumption, heart health, a reduced cancer risk, and longevity, an indication that there is very likely to be something about nuts themselves that’s leading to these considerable health benefits.

There didn’t seem to be any difference in the beneficial effects of peanuts vs. tree nuts, which include almonds, pecans, cashews, pistachios, and walnuts.

Calories are the only major drawback to eating a diet rich in nuts. Nuts are fairly high in fat; so if you snack on them without thinking about the quantity, they can easily lead to weight gain. But a handful every day (the FDA recommends up to 1.5 ounces per day), or sprinkling a serving on cereal or salad, is a great way to reap the benefits of nuts without totally going …well, nuts.

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