Nov. 7, 2003 -- Nut lovers, rejoice: New research suggests another good reason to sprinkle some almonds on your salad or toss a handful into your morning cereal. Almonds may help you shed those unwanted pounds.
Researchers found that people eating a diet rich in almonds lost more weight than those on a high-carb diet with the same number of calories. The finding goes against the traditional belief that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie.
The findings also support those from a recent study that showed people on a low-carb diet lost more weight than those on a low-fat diet -- even when the low-carb dieters ate 300 more calories a day.
In the new study, researchers followed 65 overweight and obese adults -- 70% of whom had type 2 diabetes - for 24 weeks. One group ate a 1,000 calorie/day liquid diet supplemented with 3 oz of almonds (384 additional calories). The other group ate the same liquid diet but instead supplemented with a mix of complex carbohydrates (such as wheat crackers, baked potatoes, or air-popped popcorn). The two diets were equal in calories and protein but differed in fat. Besides the liquid diet, they could also have salads with lemon juice or vinegar dressing.
The almond diet contained 39% total fat including 25% from heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, while the non-almond diet contained 18% total fat, 5% from monounsaturated fats.
The study appears in the new issue of the International Journal of Obesity.
Participants in the almond diet saw an 18% reduction in weight and body mass index (BMI) -- a measure of weight based on height -- compared with an 11% reduction in the non-almond dieters. Additionally, waist circumference in the almond group decreased by 14%, compared with a 9% decrease in the non-almond group.
Systolic blood pressure, the upper number in blood pressure readings, dropped by 11% in almond eaters and stayed the same in the non-almond eaters.
Good Diabetes News
Both groups had improvement in their type 2 diabetes with lower blood sugar and insulin levels. But those on the almond diet were able to lower their need for diabetes medication more so than the non-almond dieters.
"It seemed as though 96% of participants with type 2 diabetes were able to be well-controlled on less medication as compared to 50% of in the [non-almond] group," she says.
Study researcher Michelle Wien, DrPH, RD, CDE, a clinical dietitian and research fellow at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, Calif., calls this finding "exciting." "The almonds definitely had an impact on blood sugar."
She says that a side effect of some diabetes medication is increased hunger, "so the faster one can get off of medications during weight loss, the better because when you take away something creating hunger behind the scenes, it can lead to greater success in weight-loss effort."
"When patients would come to me and tell me they wanted crunchy food with texture, I used to suggest crunchy vegetables. So this study was almost a feasibility study in that I didn't know whether nuts would be satisfying and meet their needs [without sacrificing their waistline] -- they did," Wien says.
Do Almonds Have a Magic Ingredient?
The researchers speculate that the fat in almonds may not be completely absorbed and point to earlier research suggesting that the cell walls of almonds can act as a physical barrier to fat.
They also may make you feel fuller, longer.
"In order to be satisfied, there is a need to eat foods that contain fiber, protein, and fat, and nuts definitely qualify in that regard," says Wien.
"They may have an effect on satiety because if you snack on nuts, you will feel filler for a longer period of time and may help curb extra calories," says Felicia Busch, RD, a St. Paul, Minn.-based nutritionist who reviewed the new findings for WebMD.
Almonds Help Cut Cholesterol, Too
In a study last year, researchers found that a diet that included about one handful of almonds decreased LDL "bad" cholesterol by 4.4%. When the diet included two handfuls of almonds -- accounting for a little less than a quarter of the day's total calories -- LDL cholesterol dropped by 9.4%. When the diet was supplemented with a low-fat, whole-wheat muffin that had the same amount of calories, protein, and fat (saturated and polyunsaturated) as the almonds, there was no significant change in cholesterol.
This study, funded by the Almond Board of California, appeared in a recent issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.
In fact, in July 2003, the FDA approved the first qualified health claim for almonds, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, and peanuts for use in advertising and package labels. Packages of nut products that meet the FDA's requirements will now be able to carry the following claim:
A 1.5 oz serving of nuts is about a third of a cup or a small handful.
"Our epidemiological studies have shown eating about one ounce of nuts every day will reduce the risk of heart disease in the long run by 30%," Frank Hu, MD, PhD, associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, tells WebMD in response to this announcement.
Go Nuts -- but Not Too Crazy
"If you want to start using more almonds or nuts, sprinkle them on salad, that's great advice," says Busch, who is also the author of The New Nutrition: From Antioxidants To Zucchini.
"Nuts used to get a bad rap as a concentrated source of fat," she says. In fact, Busch remembers asking clients, "Do you really want to waste those calories?"
But, she says, "we are learning that type of fat is more important than total amount of fat -- as long as you don't overdo it."
A handful or an ounce of almonds a day has a place in a healthful diet; a whole can does not.