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The New Low-Cholesterol Diet: Nuts

Nuts aren't just for holidays anymore. Key nuts can help you lower cholesterol. Add nuts to your low-cholesterol diet.
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WebMD Feature

Nuts get a bad rap. A lot of people still see them as salty, fatty, and high calorie -- a junk food deserving exile to the carts of vendors or the snack bowls of dingy, smoky bars.

But nutritionists say that certain nuts deserve an honored spot in the kitchen of every healthy eater (as long as you're not allergic, of course.) Nuts have lots of protein, fiber, healthy monounsaturated fats, vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants. And many studies have shown that nuts have powerful cholesterol-lowering effects.

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The benefits were clear enough for the FDA in 2003 to issue a "qualified health claim" for peanuts and certain tree nuts -- almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, some pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts. The claim 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."

So it's time to dust off your nutcrackers or pull the lid off a can of nuts. Taken in moderation, these nuts are good for you.

Walnuts

"Walnuts are great because they have high levels of omega-3 fatty acids," says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Suzanne Farrell, MS, RD. "Other nuts don't."

Omega-3 fatty acids are also found in fatty fish like tuna and salmon. We know that omega-3 fatty acids lower levels of triglycerides, a type of fat in the bloodstream. Experts are not exactly sure how. Omega-3 fatty acids may also slow down the growth of plaques inthe arteries and prevent blood clots.

There are a number of small studies that show that walnuts help lower cholesterol.

One 2004 study of 58 adults with diabetes looked at the effects of eating a handful of walnuts each day in addition to a healthy diet. The researchers found that on average, people who ate the walnuts had an increase in their good HDL cholesterol and a drop of 10% in their bad LDL cholesterol levels. The results were published in the journal Diabetes Care.

Walnuts received their own, separate qualified health claim from the FDA in 2004, stating that they may reduce the risk of heart disease.

Almonds

Many studies show that almonds have real health benefits too. Like other nuts, they are high in protein, fiber, healthy monounsaturated fats, minerals, and other nutrients. They are also high in vitamin E, an antioxidant.

One researcher, David Jenkins MD, has done many studies of the effects of almonds. In a study, he tested 27 men and women with high cholesterol over three months. People who ate about a handful of almonds a day lowered their bad LDL cholesterol by 4.4%. Those who ate two handfuls lowered it by 9.4%. The results were published in the journal Circulation.

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Cholesterol Glossary

  • Dietary fiber - The parts of plants that your body can't digest. If eaten regularly, fiber such as oats, pectin, and psyllium reduces serum and LDL cholesterol.
  • HDL Cholesterol - The "good" cholesterol, HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol helps your body remove "bad" cholesterol from your arteries.
  • LDL Cholesterol - The "bad" cholesterol, LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol tends to be deposited in artery walls.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids - A good-for-you polyunsaturated fat found in some fish and vegetables (salmon, flax seed, soybean, English walnuts, and canola oil).
  • Plant sterols - Found in plant foods, isolated from soybean and tall pine tree oils, they lower LDL "bad" cholesterol levels.

Which foods do you favor?