Aug. 19, 2002 -- Eating a handful of honey-roasted almonds may seem indulgent, but it could be a healthy way to improve your cholesterol profile. Two new studies suggest that honey and almonds each have special properties that can help protect against heart disease.
But that doesn't mean you should go out and splurge on honey and nut-laden treats like baklava in hopes of lowering your cholesterol. Instead, researchers say honey and almonds should slowly be incorporated into your diet by substituting them for other calorie-rich foods in order to get the most benefits without adding extra pounds.
In the first study, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that honey contains about the same level of antioxidants as many fruits and vegetables such as spinach, apples, bananas, oranges, and strawberries. But you'd have to eat an equivalent amount of honey to get the same dose of antioxidants from the sweet stuff as you would from eating a piece of fruit.
That might seem like a lot of honey, but study author Nicki Engeseth, PhD, says adding small amounts of honey could enhance the effects of an already heart-healthy diet and help keep cholesterol levels in check.
"People could incorporate honey in places where they might be using some sort of sweetening agent, like sugar, and this might contribute a significant amount of [antioxidants]," says Engeseth.
In fact, Engeseth and her colleagues found that drinking a mixture of about 4 tablespoons of honey with 16 ounces of water improved the antioxidant levels in the blood of 25 men who participated in their five-week study. Researchers say it's the first time honey has been shown to have a healthy antioxidant effect in humans.
An earlier laboratory study by the same research team found that dark honey generally has the highest concentrations of antioxidants. Their findings were presented this week at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society. Funding for their research was provided by the National Honey Board.
In another study, Canadian researchers found that eating almonds can significantly lower so-called "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.
Although previous research has shown that eating nuts can reduce the risk of heart disease, it wasn't known exactly how many nuts you had to eat in order to get benefits. In this study, researchers tested three diets on 27 men and women with high cholesterol over a period of three months.
For one month, the participants ate a large dose of almonds (about 2 handfuls) that accounted for a little less than a quarter of their total day's worth of calories. In the next month, they ate a smaller dose (one handful) of almonds. And in the last month, they ate a low-fat, whole-wheat muffin that had the same amount of calories, protein, and fat (saturated and polyunsaturated) as the almonds.
After comparing cholesterol levels during and after each diet, researchers found that LDL levels were lowered by an average of 4.4% with the smaller portion of almonds and by 9.4% with the larger portion. The study was funded by the Almond Board of California.
"We were quite impressed," says study author David J.A. Jenkins, MD, director of clinical nutrition and risk factor modification center at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, in a news release.
In addition, the ratio of LDL to HDL "good" cholesterol fell by almost 8% for the half dose and 12% for the full dose by the fourth week. This means that the almonds had a good effect on LDL "bad" cholesterol without lowering the amount of HDL.
In contrast, cholesterol levels did not change significantly after the muffin phase.
Nuts are a good source of protein and do not have cholesterol, but the American Heart Association stresses that they can do more harm than good if they are added rather than substituted for other foods in the diet because they are high in fat and calories.
Other nuts, including walnuts, pecans, peanuts, macadamia and pistachios, have also been shown to lower cholesterol. Jenkins says that although there is not enough research to say that all nuts are equal in their health value, almonds have been particularly well-researched.
His study appears in today's rapid access issue of Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association.